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Six Nations: Scotland v Ireland Preview
Our rugby scribe gives his opinion on Saturday's Six Nations opener between Scotland and Ireland.
Scotland will look to put one over one of their old foes and get their Six Nations campaign off to the perfect start when they take on Ireland at Murrayfield on Saturday
Scotland v Ireland | Saturday 4 February | Murrayfield | 16:25
To Win (80 mins)
Scotland 19/10 | Draw 19/1 | Ireland 9/20
Scotland (+5.5) 9/10 | (-5.5) 9/10
Vern Cotter begins his final year as Scotland head coach on Sunday, and he will be pushing his side to send him off on a high. 2016 saw Scotland continue to evolve under Cotter, although their eventual fourth-placed Six Nations finish didn't do the side any justice.
This current side, with their pacy backline and mobile forward pack, often look to play the game at break-neck speed in the middle of the park, and will force Ireland to make tackle-after-tackle this weekend. It will be interesting to see how the likes of Richie and Jonny Gray face up to the solid lineout of their opposition (especially against an experienced campaigner like Devin Toner). While their lineout may be able to cope, the Scottish scrum is likely to battle without the prowess of WP Nel.
The inclusion again of Huw Jones to partner Alex Dunbar in the midfield could prove to be a masterstroke by Cotter. Regular starter Dunbar could provide the solidity that the attack-minded Jones needs beside him to realise his full potential - indeed this could be the start of a regular centre combination for Scotland.
The settled halfback pairing of Finn Russell and Laidlaw will again look to hog the headlines, while Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour complete a formidable back three. The flankers are Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson, while the omission of John Barclay in favour of Josh Strauss at eighth man is an interesting one. Barclay has started nine of the last ten Tests under Cotter and has been in impressive form for Scarletts of late.
The brothers Gray (both of whom will be looking to catch the eye of Warren Gatland during the tournament) again start in the second-row, while Zander Ferguson takes the regular spot of Nel at no. 3 and is complemented in the front-row by Allan Dell and Fraser Brown (interestingly preferred to the 102-capped Ross Ford at hooker). The Scotsmen will look to take inspiration from what is sure to be a sold-out Murrayfield when they run out onto the pitch this weekend.
Another Kiwi coach in Joe Shmidt will be confident of foiling the Scots once again on Sunday, especially seeing as his side haven't lost to their Celtic opponents since 2013. The meticulous Shmidt, who masterminded the downfall of the World Champion All Blacks just over two months ago, will expect big things from his settled side this weekend. After disappointingly finishing third on the Six Nations table last season (one place above this weekend's rivals), you can bet that the Irish boys are hungry to reclaim the title they won so marvelously in 2014 and 2015, when their rock-solid set piece coupled with Shmidt's esteemed tactical nous, rendered them virtually unbeatable.
The most eye-catching inclusion in Ireland's starting XV is that of Sean O'Brien, who has shaken off a calf injury to partner fellow backrowers CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip. Devin Toner and Iain Henderson once again get the nod at lock, while hooker Rory Best will be flanked by Leinster props Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong. Arguably the best scrumhalf in the world at the moment,
Connor Murray, will put Paddy Jackson at ease in the absence of first-choice flyhalf Jonathan Sexton (calf), while Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose continue in the centres. Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney complete an all-British and Irish Lions back three. This uber-talented side will look to continue their winning streak against Scotland, by beating them in their own backyard on Sunday.
Verdict: Ireland (-6.5) 9/10
Too strong, too fast and simply too good. This Ireland team could very easily go on to lift this season's title and should have the experience to prevail once again this weekend.