After the disappointing defeat against England last time out, Ireland aim to keep their championship hopes alive at Murrayfield on Sunday. Cormac O' Keeffe looks forward to the game and expects a narrow Irish win...
Scotland v Ireland
Sunday 14:00, live on BBC1
Form and head-to-head
Ireland suffered a defeat to England in tough conditions last time out that destroyed their triple crown and grand slam dreams for another year. This followed impressive wins over Argentina and Wales in their last two outings. Scotland also have one win from their two games to date and there's no doubt that they have improved over the last year or so. Prior to a tough November series they had a successful tour down under including a win over Australia and they have added a greater cutting edge to their game. They ran in four tries in an impressive 34-10 win over Italy a fortnight ago and were clinical with the chances that came their way in defeat to England in the opening game of the championship.
It was their first win in seven Six Nations games and their tally of six tries in two games is already two ahead of their total haul in last season's championship where they earned another wooden spoon. Indeed, their try count in the last five seasons reads a miserable four, six, three, two, and three. However, with the likes of Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg they have a much sharper cutting edge these days. They will find it a lot tougher than last week as the Irish defence has been outstanding for most of the last three games.
Ireland have won ten of the last 11 championship games between the sides and their record at Murrayfield is outstanding, with victories in each of their last five trips to the Scottish capital in the championship.
Ireland will have to plan for the remaining games of the championship without the suspended Cian Healy and the injured Simon Zebo and Gordon D'Arcy. Furthermore, Jonathan Sexton, Mike McCarthy and Chris Henry will miss the trip to Murrayfield but the side is boosted by the availability of Brian O' Driscoll and Sean O' Brien. When the recent injured names are added to the longer-term absentees Paul O' Connell, Tommy Bowe, and Stephen Ferris, Ireland are missing at least six first-choice players. Declan Kidney's job may be on the line and he's gambled on two uncapped players among the five changes to the side that lost to England.
Paddy Jackson replaces Sexton at out-half, while Luke Marshall deputises for D'Arcy. Another Ulster player, Tom Court, gets the nod ahead of Dave Kilcoyne, while O' Callaghan and Earls replace McCarthy and Zebo respectively in the other two enforced changes.
Jackson's goal-kicking will be a major concern, as Ruan Pienaar is Ulster's main goal kicker. The Irish backline is very inexperienced and the bench looks very light on quality. However, youthful exuberance may be exactly what Ireland require and it should not be forgotten that the likes of Jackson have started a Heineken Cup final. Also, experience is not always key, as last week Brian O' Driscoll had almost as many caps to his name as the entire English backline combined.
Scotland have made only one change from the side that swept Italy aside a fortnight ago. Geoff Cross comes in at tight-head to replace Euan Murray, who always opts out of these Sunday encounters for religious reasons.
Key area and verdict
The inexperience in the Irish backline should be more than compensated for by the strength of the pack. The Scottish scrum was completely over-powered at times against England but performed fairly well against Italy. The scrum has been one of the strongest facets of the Irish game, and even if defeat to England the set piece performed well. The front row should not be weakened with the inclusion of Tom Court and if the lineout and driving maul operate as they did in the second half against England then Ireland should create enough opportunities to keep their championship hopes alive.
Ireland's biggest worry is the huge number of handling errors that they made against England, albeit in tough conditions. They will need to be more clinical this week but I think that the injection of new blood into the backline may provide the required impetus. I'll be backing Ireland to win at a price of 1.758/11 and will also be taking a chance of Ireland/Ireland in the half-time/full-time market at 2.546/4.