Ireland kick off their World Cup campaign with a mouthwatering clash against Scotland on Sunday and Gavan Casey from our Pod Nations Predict team is expecting a tight affair...
"Ireland showed against Wales in the warm-ups that for all their recent shortcomings, they haven't forgotten how to grind one out."
Ireland v Scotland
Sunday, 08:45 BST
Live on ITV
It's weird that something as trivial as the weather on a given day could play such a large role in determining the outcome of a game that two teams have been building towards for the guts of four years.
Joe Schmidt is a decent forecaster but not for the first time in this Rugby World Cup lead-up, unforeseeable factors have taken a spanner to his best-laid plans: having emerged from four warm-up games largely unscathed, Ireland have ahead of their key pool opener against Scotland lost three key backline figures - all bona fide starters - in Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney.
To his credit, Schmidt has assembled a squad during this World Cup cycle whereby Ireland are well-enough stocked in the majority of positions that to lose a frontliner could hardly be considered terminal; this was one of his predominant goals after an injury-ravaged Ireland were savaged by Argentina at the quarter-final stage four years ago.
Kearney absence a big blow
But with Will Addison at home, Joey Carbery still not quite match-fit and Racing 92's Simon Zebo out in the cold due to IRFU policy, Kearney's absence at 15 is especially glaring.
In comes Leinster flier Jordan Larmour at full-back, and with the greatest respect to the prodigious young talent, up will go Scottish hopes of a minor upset in Yokohama. Larmour is vastly less experienced than Kearney and decidedly less assured in defence; even for Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway out wide, it's a blow not to have the security blanket of Kearney sweeping up behind them - that's how good a game-reader he is, and a testament to his athleticism at 33.
Despite suggestions throughout the week that the game would be played beneath torrential rain - there were even reports at one point that the fixture was under threat - it would now appear as though Sunday in Yokohama will be for the most part dry, and drizzly at worst.
In an overall sense, drier conditions and harder ground suit Scotland's propensity for electrifying counter-attack whereas in swamp-like conditions, Ireland would have had even more cause to stick the pill up the jumper and try to bludgeon their way towards a win - a tried and tested formula against Gregor Townsend's Scots.
But if it does stay fairly dry, Schmidt - even if not by choice - is deploying a back three which could make hay for the men in green. Larmour in particular, who will doubtless be targeted by the boots of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, could have a field day; he remains one of the most dangerous counter-attackers in world rugby and while there is uncertainty around his positional awareness in defence, there will be more uncertainty in the minds of Scottish defenders as to what he intends to do once he gets ball in hand.
Up front holds the key
And yet, like most 50/50-ish games before it, Ireland and Scotland's pool opener will largely be decided up front.
In the back row, Schmidt (pictured) has opted for a fairly conventional combination of Peter O'Mahony (6), Josh van der Flier (7) and CJ Stander (8), each of whom are strong over the ball and each of whom are capable of producing the type of fist-pumping 'come-on-to-jaysus' turnover on the deck that can shift the energy of a game.
But Scotland are well stocked, too, in that department: John Barclay (6), Hamish Watson (7) and Ryan Wilson (8) will fancy their chances of winning the ground battle and, as a collective, probably offer more ballast with ball in hand.
Man for man, I'd give Ireland the edge in the tight five by way of the fact that Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan are two of the best players in the world in any position, and their supporting cast aren't too shabby either.
Key to Schmidt's attack is the line-out, of course, through which all things are made. Ireland's will come under intense pressure early doors and caller Iain Henderson will have a task on his hands to keep things ticking over as smoothly as possible.
If Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray and co. can dismantle Ireland's lineout, Scotland will win this game, plain and simple. But the fact that Schmidt opted to leave Devin Toner at home, while it heaps further pressure on the line-out, would suggest to me that Schmidt has the utmost confidence in its ability to function fluidly without him.
Two key factors
With little to separate the two sides from 1-15, I see the game ultimately being decided by two other key factors: the bench, and big-game nous.
At full-tilt, the Scots certainly have the capacity to go toe-to-toe with Ireland in nearly every area, but it's going require the type of collective effort that will see their players sucking in air on the hour mark, hands on heads, minds in orbit.
And then they're going to see Dave Kilcoyne come onto the pitch.
The Munsterman has always been a massive carrier but during the warm-up games for this World Cup turned into something altogether more demonic. He's mowing opponents down with and without the ball, so much so that there is a case to be made for his being worthy of a start over the also-excellent and in-form Cian Healy.
In a slugfest, and among tired limbs, Kilcoyne could ruin lives and give Ireland serious impetus.
Add to the equation Andrew Porter, Jack Conan and Chris Farrell - three units noted for their ability to breach the gainline - and an absolute nuisance in the wily Tadhg Beirne, and it's difficult not to fancy Ireland to eventually blow the house down after an hour's worth of huffing and puffing.
Crucially, too, this Ireland team - steered expertly by their half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, who exemplify the point - is composed largely of winners.
That might seem simplistic on the face of it, but when push comes to shove with a game in the balance, teams who are accustomed to winning tend to get the job done. Teams who are accustomed to falling short of expectations tend to panic, overthink and make bad decisions.
Ireland showed against Wales in the warm-ups that for all their recent shortcomings, they haven't forgotten how to grind one out. And so the forecast for Sunday is a hard-fought, narrow Ireland win, but Scotland can cover the eight-point handicap.
For more from Gavan and the rest of our Pod Nations Predict panel, check out our Rugby World Cup podcast