It’s just four months since Ireland and Scotland last met but the picture has changed considerably on the eve of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations.
Ireland convincingly won that World Cup encounter 27-3, although that was the major highlight in a tournament of frustration that ended in a quarter-final defeat to New Zealand.
Saturday will mark a new beginning for the Men in Green. In Andy Farrell, they have a new head coach and a man already embedded in the Ireland system.
Farrell was defence coach under Joe Schmidt for four years and has evolved – rather than revolutionised – the squad he has been left. But there is still a fresh feel to Ireland this year.
Johnny Sexton has replaced Rory Best as captain, exciting full-back Jordan Larmour seems to finally have the keys to the No.15 jersey, while No.8 Caelan Doris is set for his debut.
Hooker Ronan Kelleher, a try-scoring machine for Leinster, is also hoping for a first cap from the bench, while Ross Byrne will inject some impetus if Sexton tires late on.
John Cooney, with just eight caps, has a point to prove after narrowly missing out on the starting scrum-half berth.
In contrast, Scotland’s Gregor Townsend is approaching his third Championship and seeking a first win against Ireland.
Full-back Start Hogg has the armband, replacing Stuart McInally, while Huw Jones is back in the fold at centre after rediscovering his form.
Scotland’s World Cup ended at the pool stage and Townsend is determined to set things right in this Championship.
Beating Ireland on the road, something they have not done since 2010, would go some way to exorcising those demons and signal their threat in this Championship.
WHAT THEY SAID
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell: “I want to see the good old traditions of what all champion Ireland teams have been about.
“We want to be a team that the Irish public love watching. The traditional parts of those champion teams have always been a dominant forward pack, an aggressive forward pack, unbelievably hard to handle.
“I’ve been on the other side of that myself. A backline that facilitates that for a forward pack and also takes advantage of what the forwards are doing for them
“That’s going back throughout history. Those are the essential parts of the game. The little bits we’re trying to build, they will take time, we’ll see how they progress over the next while, but hopefully before not too long we’re talking about our own history as well.”
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend: “We have to be focused, confident and prepared to do the tough stuff at the weekend. It’s a new team. We know the performance in Yokohama [in the World Cup] wasn’t anywhere near good enough but this is a new team. The players are looking forward rather than back.
“It’s important we are in the game and we stay in the fight for as long as possible. We are looking to impose our game on Ireland but we know that won’t be easy.
“When you play a team like Ireland, who have so much quality and they are on their own patch, it’s pretty clear they will bring their own energy and their own game. The first 20-30 minutes will be tough and we need to be up for that, we need to enjoy the defensive side of the game.
KEY BATTLE – CONOR MURRAY V ALI PRICE
It’s nine years since Conor Murray established himself as Ireland’s scrum-half and his consistent excellence has reduced any selection debate at No.9 to virtually nil ever since.
But in this year’s Championship, the two-time Lion is under pressure to perform. The red-hot John Cooney is in the form of his life at Ulster and many tipped him for the starting job on Saturday.
Murray has got the nod for now and he’ll be expected to repay the faith show in him by Farrell. His box-kicking, especially, will be vital.
The individual battle between he and Ali Price will go along way to deciding who wins this match. Price is a sniping, Jack Russell of a No.9 and he won’t let Murray enjoy a moment’s peace.
With Greig Laidlaw now retired, Price is the top dog at scrum-half for Scotland. He’ll be expected to steer half-back partner Adam Hastings through his first Championship start, while the recalled centre Huw Jones and full-back Stuart Hogg thrive off quick ball.
For Scotland to fly home with the points, the suggestion is they will need to score plenty. Price’s role there is vital.
STATS – POWERED BY AWS
- Ireland have not lost at home to Scotland in ten years, when Dan Parks’ late penalty sealed a 23-20 victory for the visitors at Croke Park.
- Ireland lead the overall head-to-head 35-26, while there have been four draws
- Scotland wing Blair Kinghorn made more metres (493) than any other player in the 2019 Championship.
IRELAND: Jordan Larmour; Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.
Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony, John Cooney, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg (captain); Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn; Adam Hastings, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Nick Haining.
Replacements: Stuart McInally, Allan Dell, Simon Berghan, Ben Toolis, Cornell du Preez, George Horne, Rory Hutchinson, Chris Harris.
Ireland v Scotland
@ Aviva Stadium
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)