What a difference a week makes. Seven days ago Ireland had the Grand Slam in the back of their minds, and now their title chances are hanging by a thread. They’re in a much less precarious spot than Wales, but like their Celtic cousins they’ll need some help from Les Bleus if they hope to left the trophy by the end of the day. It’s amazing how one slip-up can be so consequential. It’s a big part of the championship’s allure.
Of course Ireland have to get by Scotland first, and do so relatively comfortably to have any chance whatsoever. Not in itself a terrible task but the Scots have played spoilers before and would love to stuff up well-made plans in their own backyard. Ireland need to cover up the 4 point gap in the opening minutes, then start stuffing their account. Like Wales, it remains to be seen whether Ireland is prepared to take risks. Jonny Sexton can only kick so many penalty goals.
Joe Schmidt has nominated the same group to take on Scotland, with only two changes. Cian Healy swaps jerseys with Jack McGrath, and Simon Zebo is dropped in favour of Luke Fitzgerald, the latter playing his first game in the green jersey in 18 months. Zebo has paid the price for some ordinary championship form, Fitzgerald rewarded for some cracking performances with Leinster. Fitzgerald doesn’t have the gas or pure magic of Zebo, but his rugby IQ is probably a step ahead. As far as gambles go it’s a pretty benign one.
As far as tasks go, Scotland’s is very simple. Win the game. They haven’t achieved that yet in the championship, a fact that will grind away at Vern Cotter. Their inability to put 80 minutes of rugby together has been their biggest issue. Some of their key players haven’t quite fired on all cylinders, and one wonders how long Cotter will stomach substandard performances.
Alasdair Dickinson and Rob Harley have paid the price this week, both benched after failing to impress in the last two matches. Ryan Grant returns at loosehead for his first Scotland start in a year. The Lions tourist has struggled with injury and form but now has his chance to put his hand up for the World Cup. On the flank it’s Adam Ashe who takes over, an interesting choice given that he prefers to play at the back of the scrum. Alongside David Denton that gives Scotland two ball carriers in the back row, though of different styles. The only other change comes in the reserves, where Johnnie Beattie makes way for Tim Visser.
On paper this looks like an Irish win despite the locale. They will be disappointed with the loss in Cardiff, and assuredly keen to put down a marker for England. Expect them to take a pragmatic approach in the first half, aiming to make up the 4 points, but the shackles will have to come off in the second. How Scotland respond will tell the tale. Take Ireland to win, but only by around 10 points, setting up a nail biter at Twickenham and a grandstand finish.
SCOTLAND vs IRELAND
Saturday, March 21, 14:30 GMT, Edinburgh
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (FFR)
Assistants: Pascal Gaüzère (FFR) & Federico Anselmi (UAR)
TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)