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Dublin: 17 °C Saturday 4 July, 2020
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Farrell's Ireland have chance for a perfect start as Scotland visit Dublin

The World Cup is in the rearview mirror as Johnny Sexton and co. bid to get up and running.

IRELAND’S PLAYERS MAY be sick of hearing about the World Cup but for a large number of the people tuning into today’s Six Nations opener against Scotland in Dublin, this will be the first time they have wholeheartedly engaged with rugby since the unhappy campaign in Japan.

A sport as small as rugby can’t be dismissive of the extra interest generated by the Six Nations, so there is an onus on Ireland to back up their recent words about a fresh start under Andy Farrell by delivering something positive on the pitch.

They have pointed to the new energy in the squad, the qualities of their new coaching staff, and the pleasant surroundings of their new training base, but the proof will be in the performance at the Aviva Stadium from 4.45pm [Virgin Media One] onwards today.

a-view-of-a-guinness-six-nations-branded-ball The Six Nations is back and Ireland are keen to make an early mark. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

We can’t expect Harlem Globetrotters stuff in Farrell’s first game in charge – particularly with a very windy day forecast – but an incisive, physically dominant, and relentlessly hungry performance shouldn’t be beyond this Ireland team. Any sprinkling of attacking excitement will be gratefully lapped up.

Farrell himself has cautioned that he and new attack coach Mike Catt will need time to grow that side of Ireland’s game and the Ireland boss stressed this week that physicality, forward dominance, and aggression are the foundations he hopes to see.

In that sense, Ireland’s most recent meetings with Scotland bode well. They bullied them in the four-try 27-3 hammering of Gregor Townsend’s side in their pool clash at the World Cup, having done much the same in Dublin on a 28–8 scoreline in 2018.

“We just started quick out of the gates, our defence was good that day and we put certain guys like Finn Russell under pressure,” said Ireland flanker CJ Stander of the win in Japan.

“Our forwards linked well with our backs, every time we got in their 22, we got points. But we looked at that game during the week, it was still in the balance 10 minutes into the second half.”

Ireland are on a streak of five consecutive wins at home against the Scots, having last lost this fixture in Dublin in 2010 at Croke Park. The most recent defeat before that was in the 1998 Five Nations when Townsend was part of the team at inside centre.

Farrell’s men are 14-point favourites for the latest meeting but the Scots aren’t buying into the level of doubt surrounding their chances.

stuart-hogg-with-johnny-gray Stuart Hogg is the new Scotland captain. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

“I truly believe this 23 can go out and win a Test match that no one thinks we can win. It hurts that we haven’t won in Dublin in the past 10 years,” said new captain Stuart Hogg.

“We have been written off but we believe in our collective ability. Write us off all you want but we will focus on what we want to do. If we stand firm in defence, we can win.” 

Hogg and the Scots are rebounding from their own disastrous World Cup, having failed to even get out of the pool after a second defeat to hosts Japan, with the head coach having made 10 changes to his team from that fixture. One of those, of course, was forced by Russell deciding to continue a drinking session at the team hotel two weekends ago.

23-year-old Adam Hastings, a talented attacking out-half himself, gets his first Six Nations start as a result of Russell leaving camp.

“Any side would miss a Finn Russell but I think they have someone stepping into that number 10 jersey that has very similar qualities,” said Ireland assistant coach Simon Easterby. 

The Scots look a very different team to the World Cup version, even if Australia-born 29-year-old number eight Nick Haining of Edinburgh is the only one in the starting XV making his Test debut.

Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson either side of him in the back row are quality operators, while lock Jonny Gray will work hard all day. The returning Huw Jones is dangerous at outside centre, if defensively a possible weakness, while the back three of Hogg, Blair Kinghorn, and Sean Maitland possess firepower.

caelan-doris Caelan Doris makes his Test debut for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland have a better team on paper, though, with their own exciting debutant number eight in 21-year-old Caelan Doris, who has the potential to be the breakout star of this championship.

“All the players that have come in, especially the guys that haven’t been capped, you can only judge them on what they’ve been playing against and how they’ve been playing for their provinces, particularly in the European Cup, and Caelan has been standing out,” said Easterby of the new man’s readiness, saying much the same of uncapped 21-year-old replacement hooker Rónan Kelleher.

While Ireland will hope to have Doris displaying his full skillset, which includes clever running lines and offloading ability, they will hone in on nailing their set-piece and being defensively sound, while hoping to show hints of attacking innovation.

All of it will be driven by the most riveting individual on the pitch: Ireland’s own new captain, Johnny Sexton. Making his return after eight weeks out with a knee injury, the 34-year-old will be keen to answer those who have asked questions of his appointment.

The same applies to scrum-half Conor Murray, who remains under pressure for his place. There is Andrew Conway on the right wing finally get a chance to show he should have been a starter some time ago. Like Conway, Ulster hooker Rob Herring is getting his first Six Nations start and has to nail his lineout throws. Stander, redeployed on the blindside, will want to shut a few people. Bundee Aki will hope to keep himself ahead of Robbie Henshaw in the pecking order at 12. Jordan Larmour can nail down the 15 shirt. 

Those subplots and many more are driving Ireland. Beating Scotland at home won’t eradicate the memories of the World Cup but an energetic, positive, and promising performance would get some bounce back into the national team.

cj-stander-with-caelan-doris-josh-van-der-flier-and-bundee-aki Ireland will look to do their talking on the pitch. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The good things we had over the last few years, hopefully they’ll be in place tomorrow with the added quality of what we’ve been working on in the last few weeks,” said Easterby.

“It’s not going to be perfect, it will take time, but hopefully we’ll see it evolve and develop over the Six Nations.”

Development would be welcome but the result in his first game will be everything for Farrell. Losing at home to the Scots for the first time in a decade would leave him immediately feeling the pressure of being a head coach for the first time.  

Ireland have enough quality to ensure that won’t be the case.

Ireland:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Andrew Conway
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Bundee Aki
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Conor Murray

1. Cian Healy
2. Rob Herring
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan
6. CJ Stander
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Caelan Doris

Replacements:

16. Ronan Kelleher
17. Dave Kilcoyne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Devin Toner
20. Peter O’Mahony
21. John Cooney
22. Ross Byrne 
23. Robbie Henshaw 

Scotland:

15. Stuart Hogg (captain)
14. Sean Maitland 
13. Huw Jones
12. Sam Johnson
11. Blair Kinghorn
10. Adam Hastings
9. Ali Price

1. Rory Sutherland
2. Fraser Browne
3. Zander Fagerson
4. Scott Cummings
5. Jonny Gray
6. Jamie Ritchie
7. Hamish Watson
8. Nick Haining

Replacements:

16. Stuart McInally
17. Allan Dell
18. Simon Berghan
19. Ben Toolis
20. Cornell du Preez
21. George Horne
22. Rory Hutchinson
23. Chris Harris

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [France].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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