Scotland will bid to seize on Glasgow’s fine Champions Cup form when they aim to topple Ireland in their opening RBS 6 Nations encounter at Murrayfield.
Here, we examines five key battle grounds for Saturday’s clash.
SCOTLAND INTENT ON TARGETING CONOR MURRAY
Munster and Ireland scrum-half Murray was fuming with Glasgow for singling him out for special treatment when the sides met in Champions Cup action last month. The British and Irish Lions half-back claimed Glasgow were effectively taking cheap shots at him by tackling his standing leg when he was box-kicking for clearances. Ireland boss Joe Schmidt has also asserted Glasgow were adopting dangerous tactics that could have left Murray with a serious injury. Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw has remained unfazed by the fuss however, insisting that all half-backs can expect to be targeted in every game. Munster flanker CJ Stander has admitted Ireland must look after Murray slightly better than his provincial side did against Glasgow. Forget the rights and wrongs though, because however it unfolds this build-up now guarantees sparks.
JONNY GRAY MUST JUSTIFY THE HYPE
Tommy Seymour this week branded 22-year-old lock Gray as “one of the best in the world”. Well now the Glasgow man has to deliver on that high praise: the second row cupboard has perhaps never been better stocked in any Lions year. England’s Maro Itoje and George Kruis were lauded to the rafters as Eddie Jones’ side produced a flawless 13 wins from 13 matches in 2016. Wales’ new captain Alun Wyn Jones is rated among Europe’s best leaders, and Ireland’s Devin Toner remains one of the game’s pre-eminent lineout operators. But after all that if Seymour remains happy to dole out the praise, well, then the younger Gray brother must be something special. Time to prove it then.
IRELAND NEED PADDY JACKSON TO HIT NEW HEIGHTS
Another Test window, another injury battle for Johnny Sexton. Ireland’s pivotal fly-half missed the summer tour to South Africa after shoulder surgery, ground through the autumn with hamstring problems and has now been struck with a calf issue. Boss Joe Schmidt has already admitted Sexton is a long-shot for the Italy trip on Saturday week. Over to Ulster playmaker Jackson then, who came of Test-match age in the summer’s South Africa series. The 25-year-old has progressed steadily in the last 18 months, but has to treat this Six Nations opening as Ireland’s main man.
CAN SCOTLAND’S NEW-LOOK FRONT-ROW DELIVER IN THE SCRUM
Scotland will feel the loss of cornerstone prop WP Nel to neck surgery most acutely at the scrum. Head coach Vern Cotter has still gone ahead and tinkered with his resources at the coal face however, preferring hooker Fraser Brown to the more experienced Ross Ford. Edinburgh’s Allan Dell starts his first Six Nations encounter, while four-cap prop Zander Fagerson is rich in promise but also short on experience. Ireland’s tight set-piece work has remained a constant strength under Schmidt, so Scotland will have their work cut out to gain the upper hand in a key battle ground this weekend.
HENSHAW AND RINGROSE READY FOR CENTRAL CASTING
Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will finally make their Test bow as a centre pairing. Ireland’s much-vaunted future double act have had to bide their time to be partnered in midfield at international level. But now the young tyros will reprise their burgeoning Leinster alliance for their national side. For an expectant public these highly-promising young stars are the new Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll. Head coach Schmidt has fought to fend off such comparisons, but Henshaw and Ringrose have the potential and the time to build a lasting combination, and that starts now.