Six Nations: Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield, Sunday, 3pm – Live on Virgin Media One and BBC 1
Not for the first time in recent years, and not for the last time either, destiny has decreed that a meeting with Scotland looks like it could define another Irish campaign.
They met in the last World Cup, as they will in the next, and as they did in Andy Farrell’s first game as well as the Nations Cup third-place playoff, and the result here will go some way toward determining a top or bottom half finish.
“They always seem pretty important against Scotland, don’t they?” Farrell admitted with a smile.
“The World Cup’s first game and then obviously the first time we played Scotland in my reign, and we’re going into this game wanting a performance.
"Look, it's always pretty special playing against the Scots and rightly so. It's the rivalry isn't it, and it's what makes the Six Nations so special.
“Like I have said over the course of this Six Nations, the want for a victory, all the different emotions that happen during the competition is the reason why we all love this game, this competition.”
Scotland’s customary optimism remains intact despite Ireland winning 16 of the last 19 meetings in the Championship, as well as a five-match winning streak.
Admittedly Scotland have won two of their last four home games against Ireland in the Six Nations, and by rights they should still be in the hunt for the Grand Slam.
Keeping the dual gamebreaking threats of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg in some kind of check will be key and Farrell more or less accepted that the best means of achieving this would be to repeat the kind of forward dominance achieved in Yokohama – when not even a combination of Beauden Barrett and a vintage Serge Blanco in Scottish blue would have been able to make an impact.
“Like any game with top class backs that are quite quick and dynamic in how they want to play the game, you have got to control the game up front, haven’t you? There is no doubt about that.
“Those two players that you’re talking about, they will either play with their dinner suit or not because of the speed of ball that they’ll require to be able to play into space.
“It’s up to us to make sure that we slow that ball down to them so that we can put some pressure on them ourselves.”
It will be interesting to see if Ireland adopt similar tactics to Yokohama or seek to play with the same width and ambition as they did in Rome, but this Scottish pack looks made of sterner stuff too. Similarly, Scotland’s back three certainly look equipped for a kick-chase game, and to benefit from Russell’s superb kick-pass game to the wings, where Ireland do leave space, as well as his array of chips and grubbers.
Lions match-ups abound, ie Russell v Johnny Sexton, James Ryan v Jonny Gray, etc. Garry Ringrose, so unlucky to miss out four years ago, will need to close down Hogg in those outside channels in addition to finding chinks in a much-improved Scottish defence which has conceded one try with 15 men, and has only missed 17 tackles, in two games.
Most obviously there's the backrow, where Jamie Ritchie is restored alongside the hitherto outstanding Hamish Watson. They go up against the blue scrum-capped duo of Tadhg Beirne and Will Connors. The former's skilful all-court game has won five turnovers so far and the latter's tackling has energized Ireland's defence, while also scoring two tries in Rome.
If Connors plays in Russell’s face that could not only go some way towards enabling an Irish win, but could even propel him into the Lions’ discussion.
Then there’s CJ Stander, and it’s a measure of his durability that just five years since his debut he plays his 50th Test for Ireland tomorrow.
“It’s a difficult one to put into words because I couldn’t say enough about the bloke,” said Farrell when asked about Stander’s landmark. “He is the most genuine bloke that you would ever meet. He is as honest as the day is long and I suppose that’s what shows in his performance.
“If anything needs doing as far as tough yards, he’s the one to put his hand up. I’m thoroughly delighted for CJ to get his 50th cap this week and I’ve no doubt he’ll have a great game on the back of that.”
Set-piece, the gain line battle and, given the forecast wind, the aerial duel could be three key areas. Recalls for Rob Herring and Cian Healy are with the first in mind, and also opting for the more experienced Keith Earls has the latter in mind.
It is with the latter in mind that Gregor Townsend has probably opted for Sean Maitland over Darcy Graham who, like Larmour, will be sprung from the bench to bring his gamebreaking abilities.
Sam Johnson returns to the Scottish midfield and WP Nel also returns for the suspended Zander Fagerson. Scottish front row depth is being tested, whereas Ireland's is so well stocked that they can spring the ball-carrying of David Kilcoyne, Ronan Kelleher and Andrew Porter from the bench. Herring's darts are excellent and Ireland have stolen more lineouts (five) than any other team so far in this championship.
In the current climate yellow and red cards, as well as penalties, are being brandished liberally and can be decisive, as these two sides know better than anyone. Ireland have a referee in each week, this week it was Andrew Brace, but tempering the need for physicality is asking plenty of all players.
“It is tough,” acknowledged Farrell. “You’ve got to be accurate, haven’t you? You’ve got to be accurate in what you do but our players are pretty adaptable to that as well.”
The fastidious Romaine Poite will be in charge, as he was when Ireland lost here in 2017 and won here in 2019.
It has the feel of a cup tie and a tight one at that, with Paddy Power making Ireland just two-point favourites. With that oomph up front off the bench, Sexton as conductor and the comforting presence of Conor Murray back in the 23, Ireland look the more hard-nosed and practical team.
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg (Exeter); Sean Maitland (Saracens) , Chris Harris (Gloucester), Sam Johnson (Glasgow), 11 Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh); Finn Russell (Racing 92) , Ali Price (Glasgow); Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh), George Turner (Glasgow), WP Nel (Edinburgh); Scott Cummings (Glasgow), Jonny Gray (Exeter); Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow).
Replacements: David Cherry (Edinburgh), Jamie Bhatti (Bath), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Nick Haining (Edinburgh), Scott Steele (Harlequins), Huw Jones (Glasgow), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh).
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster) (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rob Herring (Ulster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Will Connors (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
Replacements: Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Billy Burns (Ulster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster).
Referee: Romain Poite (Fra)
Forecast: Ireland to win.