Ireland go to Scotland knowing that anything less than a win will leave them playing for nothing but pride with two Six Nations games remaining.
Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes ended two weeks ago at the hands of the Old Enemy, and the cost of that defeat has forced Declan Kidney’s hand with five enforced changes.
Much attention will be on the uncapped Ulster duo of outhalf Paddy Jackson and fellow 21-year-old Luke Marshall at inside centre, and with Scotland looking to exploit that 10-12 axis, much will rest on their young shoulders. Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw has the best kicking record in the competition this year (90%), so Jackson will also be under pressure to keep the scoreboard ticking over for Ireland.
But despite Kidney’s calculated gamble to start Jackson ahead of Ronan O’Gara, this is a game which will be decided by Ireland’s ability to maintain possession, something they failed to do against England at critical stages. Too many handling errors disrupted Irish momentum in that game, and Scotland will look to pounce if there is a repeat of that at the weekend.
Scotland produced a whopping 17 turnovers in their 34-10 win over Italy, and full-back Stuart Hogg and centre Sean Lamont punished the Azzuri’s sloppy play, with their breakaway tries coming directly from errors. That was a poor Italy display, however, and the organised Irish rear-guard don’t leak many soft tries.
With not much to choose between the scrums, Ireland will hope to outwit the imposing Richie Gray at line-out time. If they can edge the set-piece battle and get clean ball, Jackson and his outside backs can attack the gain-line with intent and should stretch the Scots defence. That’s where Ireland are at their most potent, and they should have enough on Sunday to make this their sixth win in-a-row at Murrayfield.
VERDICT: Ireland by 15
SCOTLAND:15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Kelly Brown, 6 Robert Harley, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Dougie Hall, 17 Jon Welsh, 18 Moray Low, 19 Alastair Kellock, 20 David Denton, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Max Evans
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Craig Gilroy, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Marshall, Keith Earls; Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray; Tom Court , Rory Best, Mike Ross, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip (capt).
Replacements: Seán Cronin, David Kilcoyne, Declan Fitzpatrick, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara , Luke Fitzgerald