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SixNations - Ireland v Scotland preview

After two quality games to start this year's tournament, James Jack, @materialista27, steps up to preview the last match of the round.

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Ireland v Scotland

The final game to get underway this weekend is Scotland's visit to a new look Ireland.

After last season's disaster, Ireland gave Declan Kidney the bullet and the pudding has been replaced by former Leinster supremo Joe Schmidt. Schmidt has chosen to retain many of last season's key players and will hope for better luck with injuries than his predecessor. Ireland started well last year with a win over Champions Wales at the Millennium Stadium, however that was the highlight of Ireland's campaign as injuries to key players like Jonny Sexton, Simon Zebo meant they were subjected to defeats by England, Scotland and Italy as well as drawing with Wooden Spooners France. Ireland's form in the Autumn Internationals was not particularly inspiring either as they opened with a 40-9 victory over Samoa, then fell away in the second half in a 32-15 defeat to Australia and then choked in their final Autumn game after leading 22-7 at half time to the world's greatest rugby side, the 2013 All Blacks losing 24-22 after conceding a try in the 82nd minute. What was worse in that New Zealand game is Jonny Sexton missed a penalty deep into the second half to extend Ireland's lead to 8 points and they conceded a penalty of their own with just 30 seconds left to allow the All Blacks to advance up the field. After they failed to stop Ryan Crotty from crossing, the Irish defence committed the cardinal sin of trying to charge down the conversion too early, and although Aaron Cruden missed the first kick, he was allowed a second attempt which he slotted over and condemned the Irish to defeat.

This season, the Irish club sides have played well, with Munster leading the way in the Radodirect Pro 12 ahead of Leinster in second and Ulster not far behind in fourth. All three sides have comfortably qualified for the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup and Ulster securing the top seed. The only man in the match-day squad that plays his rugby outside Ireland, Jonny Sexton has had a so-so start to the season and his Racing Metro side reside in mid-table of the Top 14 in eighth. He still remains the best option for the Irish at 10 and showed his class on the Lions tour scoring a try in the third test decider. Andrew Trimble comes back into the side to win his 51st cap on the right wing, replacing Tommy Bowe from the side who crumbled against New Zealand. His Ulster team mate Luke Marshall replaces Gordon D'Arcy at inside centre and another Ulster man Chris Henry replaces the injured Sean O'Brien at openside flanker.

These changes break up the world record partnership of D'Arcy and god of Irish rugby Brian O'Driscoll. BOD will take sole ownership of Ireland's cap record on Sunday when he receives his 129th cap and moves to 10 appearances behind George Gregan for the world record in what should be his final Six Nations campaign. Although he has lost a yard of pace in his old age, the 33 year old O'Driscoll remains a key part of this Irish backline along with Leinster's Kearney brothers and Munster scrum half Conor Murray. This group is full of enough experience to deal with the Scottish backline and despite Marshall's insertion into the line-up, they provide plenty of attacking options and look solid enough in defence to deal with whatever Scotland throw at them.

The real contest in this game will be where it is in every game of rugby, in the pack. With only Chris Henry in single figures in terms of senior caps, The old wily Paul O'Connell will drag his boys all over the park and look to win the individual battles in order to give Sexton go forward ball from the base of the ruck. The front row are an imperious trio and the integration of Mike Ross at tighthead prop over the last couple of seasons has given Ireland a strong scrum and as the scrum has becomes a bit of a joke in the last two seasons, if they can compete while maintaining their discipline, they will give Ireland an advantage at the set piece. The remaining question mark is at the line-out and although they have two of the most reliable jumpers in Europe in Toner and O'Connell, Best's throw can be suspect at times, and Scotland will look to attack that at every opportunity. With Sean Cronin destined to replace him after 50-55 minutes, Ireland will most probably switch to a pick and drive game-plan and look to grind Scotland down. The only problem with this is the danger that Scotland present in counter-rucking and looking at Glasgow's performances this season especially at the breakdown that could spell trouble for the Irish if they fail to maintain their discipline.

As for Scotland, they come into this game after finishing third in last year's competition with wins against Italy (34-10) and Ireland (12-8) in an insipid Murrayfield contest with all of Scotland's point coming from the boot of Greg Laidlaw. They beat Japan 42-17 in their first Autumn International before being thoroughly outclassed 28-0 by South Africa and finally regaining some dignity despite being unable to score a try in a 21-15 defeat to Australia. Failing to score a try against Australia is not a new thing for Scotland, but they couldn't repeat the result from 2012 where they beat the Wallabies for the first time in Australia for nearly 30 years (though some players celebrated that victory too much). Scott Johnson will leave his role as head coach after the tournament to be replaced by Clermont boss Vern Cotter, and despite the success of the club sides with Glasgow making the top four playoffs in last season's Pro 12 and Edinburgh's advance to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup two seasons ago, the national side have been unable to repeat their success of the late 90s and after a run of ten wins in 12 years from 1989-2001, Scotland have lost 11 of the 14 Six Nations clashes between the two including eight in a row from 2002-2009. It's a case of back to basics for this Scotland side and that seems to be forcing their opposition into a mistake and taking points when available. Although they scored seven tries in last year's competition, two of them came in their 38-18 defeat to England and four came in their victory over Italy. If the Irish can keep Laidlaw away from placekicking, Scotland seem to have few keys to unlocking the Ireland defence.

Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg gained valuable experience with the Lions in the summer and despite being only 21, Hogg is a key part of the Scotland side, the kind of full back they've lacked since Gavin Hastings' retirement. He has real pace and when he chimes into the line, he can break through anywhere. This may be another reason why Joe Schmidt selected Marshall ahead of D'Arcy to partner the ancient legs of O'Driscoll. Maitland adds a winning mentality to the backline as he's won plenty of junior titles from the time when he used to be a New Zealander. Sean Lamont plays on the other wing, and brings experience, pace and physicality, which will be key in his battle with Trimble in the game.

The Scotland pack is predominantly from the Glasgow Warriors and they made a flying start to the Pro 12 winning their first five games on the back of the forwards dominating the ruck area and Duncan Weir kicking penalties from anywhere in the opposition half. The front row is solid but not spectacular and if Ireland can stamp their quality in that area, Scotland could be in trouble. Scotland's real advantage is in the back row and Captain Kelly Brown and his shapely eyebrows leads a trio of excellent ball carriers. The Saracens man is joined by Glasgow's Ryan Wilson and Edinburgh's David Denton at number eight. Their success at the breakdown will be a big part of this game. The Scottish line out looks particularly strong and especially with Ireland's problems with their throw, the Scottish jumpers could well pinch a few in good field position. Even when Tim Swinson and Jim Hamilton are replaced, Richie Gray and Johnny Beattie will be able to continue where they left off and add their excellent skills with ball in hand.

VERDICT
Ireland are more experienced and looked to have turned a corner after their stunning first half performance against the All Blacks, however as they crumbled in the second half, Schmidt's boys will be looking for consistency and their advantage in the scrum will tell it's toll in this game. I expect the Irish to control most of the possession and territory and look to work it to the outside backs early to get their lead and then work through the middle to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Scotland have a good enough side to make this a game, but the absence of a true playmaker in the side will cost them and Stuart Hogg will spend most of the game making clearing kicks from his own 22. The Irish backs will be on the front foot for most of the game and once again Jonny Sexton will make the difference in attack.

RECOMMENDATIONS
Ireland to win by 1-12 points, 4pts (13/8 Ladbrokes)
Rob Kearney first tryscorer, 1pt EW ¼ 1,2,3 (12/1 Ladbrokes)
Luke Marshall anytime tryscorer, 2pts (4/1 Paddy Power)
Jamie Heaslip anytime tryscorer, 2pts (9/2 SpreadEX)

Ireland
Ireland : 15-Rob Kearney (Leinster), 14-Andrew Trimble (Ulster), 13-Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster), 12-Luke Marshall (Ulster), 11-Dave Kearney (Leinster), 10-Johnny Sexton (Racing Metro), 9-Conor Murray (Munster); 1-Cian Healy (Leinster), 2-Rory Best (Ulster), 3-Mike Ross (Leinster), 4-Devin Toner (Leinster), 5-Paul O'Connell (Munster, capt), 6-Peter O'Mahony (Munster), 7-Chris Henry (Ulster), 8-Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)
Replacements: 16-Sean Cronin (Leinster), 17-Jack McGrath (Leinster), 18-Martin Moore (Leinster), 19-Dan Tuohy (Ulster), 20-Tommy O'Donnell (Munster), 21-Isaac Boss (Leinster), 22-Paddy Jackson (Ulster), 23-Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

Scotland
Scotland : 15-Stuart Hogg (Glasgow), 14-Sean Maitland (Glasgow), 13-Alex Dunbar (Glasgow), 12-Duncan Taylor (Saracens), 11-Sean Lamont (Glasgow), 10-Duncan Weir (Glasgow), 9-Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh), 1-Ryan Grant (Glasgow), 2-Ross Ford (Edinburgh), 3-Moray Low (Glasgow), 4-Tim Swinson (Glasgow), 5-Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), 6-Ryan Wilson (Glasgow), 7-Kelly Brown (Saracens, capt), 8-David Denton (Edinburgh)
Replacements: 16-Pat MacArthur (Glasgow), 17-Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh), 18-Geoff Cross (Edinburgh), 19-Richie Gray (Castres), 20-Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier), 21-Chris Cusiter (Glasgow), 22-Matt Scott (Edinburgh), 23-Max Evans (Castres)

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