Scotland’s victory over Italy on Saturday will have not only encouraged a nation, as Scott Johnson’s charges scored four tries in the Championship for the first time in a decade, it will have increased expectation ahead of Ireland’s visit in a fortnight.
Declan Kidney’s side looked a shadow of the side that brushed away Wales as they succumbed to England and the boot of Owen Farrell in Dublin on Sunday, and they are likely to be without a few first-team regulars as they travel to Murrayfield.
With Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris missing from the pack, and Tommy Bowe’s try-scoring exploits also missing out wide, the 2009 winners were always going to be depleted going into this year’s championships but injury and suspension look set to test Kidney’s depth of squad and folksy wisdom to the full.
Simon Zebo, majestic in the win over Wales, is already out with a broken foot, while Jonathan Sexton is struggling with a hamstring injury. Ronan O’Gara’s performance off the bench against England won’t have filled selectors with joy.
The veteran of 127 caps would surely be the favourite though, in spite of his performance in Dublin on Sunday, as the only other option would be uncapped Ulster stand-off Paddy Jackson, who has proved inconsistent on the big stage. Kidney, a man who rarely gambles, would be foolish to do so now.
Zebo’s injury seemingly opens the door for Keith Earls, himself struggling with an injury, to return to the starting line-up, while Leinster’s versatile Fergus McFadden is another option should Kidney opt not to risk the fitness of Munsterman Earls. Zebo’s fearless attitude and blistering pace make up for his lack of size. McFadden on the other hand may be the ideal man to marshal Scotland’s lethal back-three in the tight, but if Visser, Hogg or Maitland get a run on him, they may expose his lack of pace. Earls too can be found wanting when the going gets tough. Rob Kearney will also need to have a big game if he wants to make the plane to Oz with Stuart Hogg arguably the form full-back of the tournament.
Prop Cian Healy will miss the Murrayfield clash, after his stamp on Dan Cole earned him a date with the judicial panel, and lock Mike McCarthy-one of the finds of the November series- is also out. Those two are the top tacklers in the tournament and whoever steps in will have big shoes to fill. Tom Court is no small understudy and will be looking to prove a point having been overlooked thus far – but he could be susceptible if the Scottish pack scrummages as well as they did against Italy.
If last weekend is anything to go by, Scotland will look to pressurise Ireland at the set-piece, and questions could be asked of Healy’s probable replacement, Dave Kilcoyne, at the scrum, while McCarthy’s athleticism would be sorely lost in the line-out, even if Richie Gray could be a bit tired after playing for Sale later today.
With expectation rising after a four-try Scottish win, accomplished in some style, and the Irish casualty list mounting as the week progresses, it will be a tough ask for Kelly Brown and Scott Johnson to keep this young squad firmly on the ground as they look to garner momentum ahead of back-to-back home clashes with injury-ravaged Ireland and Wales.
Probable Ireland team: 1 Dave Kilcoyne, 2 Rory Best, 3 Mike Ross, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 7 Sean O’Brien, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c); 9 Conor Murray, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 11 Keith Earls, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 14 Craig Gilroy, 15 Rob Kearney
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Michael Bent, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Chris Henry, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Fergus McFadden