IRELAND V SCOTLAND
Venue: Aviva Stadium
On TV: Live on Virgin Media 1 and ITV
For the first time since 2018 Ireland have achieved Andy Farrell’s stated goal of taking the title to the last Saturday. They may not be ideally where they wanted to be but they’re in a pretty good place all the same, given a victory will see Ireland lifting a trophy in front of their own supporters for the first time in 18 years.
Aside from signing off on the 2022 Guinness Six Nations with a win, knowing a Triple Crown would be the immediate reward should help concentrate minds without the added distraction of whatever unfolds in Paris.
Besides, the likelihood of a fairly blunt England denying an equally powerful but altogether more settled and potent France their first Grand Slam and Championship title since 2010 in a Stade de France cauldron looks remote in the extreme.
That the captain, Johnny Sexton, the forwards coach, Paul O'Connell, and loosehead Cian Healy were all in the starting Irish XV on the anti-climactic Croke Park farewell in 2010 when the plot was virtually identical should also act as a warning.
Sated by a Grand Slam the previous year as well as three Triple Crowns in the previous six Championships, Ireland were as loose as a goose that day. Allowing for this team’s ambitious passing and running game, after last week’s curiously prolific yet profligate mix, Sexton won’t be allowing that to happen again.
Nor is it very likely that Ireland will incur six full scrum penalties in light of World Rugby and Mathieu Raynal evidently conceding that several of those decisions were incorrect.
If nothing else, Wayne Barnes shouldn't be as pressurised into making rash calls without recourse to resets. The experienced Barnes can at times seem a little too laidback at club level – his performance when Stade Francais hosted Connacht was far from his finest – but he generally rises to the occasion in Test rugby.
The Irish lineout has been going pretty well in this championship and it will be a surprise if that isn't the case again, while Farrell's side have been generating the quickest ruck ball of any team in the championship over the first four rounds, while Iain Henderson, Jack Conan and Mack Hansen will all feel they have a particular point to prove and the bench looks to have more oomph.
Ireland have also won the last six meetings and that 2010 victory remains Scotland's only away victory in Dublin since the advent of the Six Nations. But this Scottish side are more dangerous than the apparent no-hopers turned party poopers of a dozen years ago. They possess both a strong starting and finish frontrow; Jonny Gray is back alongside Grant Gilchrist, who has had a fine tournament; Rory Darge has been a real find; Ali Price has taken his game to another level; and Darcy Graham has been razor sharp.
They are not the soft touch of yore, having won five of their last six away games in the championship, as many as in their previous 43 fixtures.
Despite a restorative bonus-point win in Rome, they’ve lost much of the momentum generated by an opening victory over England and with Gregor Townsend having jettisoned his playmaker Finn Russell to the bench.
Admittedly, Blair Kinghorn is a dangerous runner and is on top of his game, if possessing nothing like Russell's repertoire of game-breaking passes and kicks. Who does? And as he showed in the Lions' third Test against South Africa, Russell can also change a game more radically than most off the bench.
Perhaps playing for his Racing 92 paymasters on the fallow weeks hasn’t helped, and but for Duhan van der Merwe also being suspended for his red card while playing for Worcester, the starting Scottish backline could have had five Lions.
All of which further highlights the benefits of Ireland’s centrally contracted, home-based squad.
Furthermore, Russell along with captain Stuart Hogg, Price, Graham, Sam Johnson and Sione Tuipulotu have all been sanctioned by the SRU for leaving the team hotel to visit a bar in Edinburgh after returning from Rome.
The SRU said: “The players involved have been spoken to individually and those conversations and outcomes will remain private.
“Preparations for the match against Ireland this week have been good and the whole squad is fully focused on achieving a positive result on Saturday.”
Maybe they’ll circle the wagons, but given the naughty half dozen included the skipper, it’s not a good look.
As for Ireland, it’s rare that a team comes off a bonus-point win, least of all away at Twickenham, feeling frustrated that they left so many chances behind and ultra keen to both stiffen their scrum and sharpen their finishing.
The forecast is good, the later kick-off and scent of a trophy should help to lively up the Aviva and all Farrell wants is his team’s best all-round performance so far in this championship. He may be granted his request too.
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Iain Henderson (Ulster); Caelan Doris (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Conor Murray (Munster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster).
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg (Exeter); Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Sam Johnson (Glasgow), Kyle Steyn (Glasgow); Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Ali Price (Glasgow); Pierre Schoeman (Edinburgh), George Turner (Glasgow), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow); Jonny Gray (Exeter), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh); Rory Darge (Glasgow), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow).
Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Allan Dell (London Irish), WP Nel (Edinburgh), Sam Skinner (Exeter), Josh Bayliss (Bath), Ben White (London Irish), Finn Russell (Racing 92), Mark Bennett (Edinburgh).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)
ARs: Karl Dickson (RFU) & Christophe Ridley (RFU)
TMO: Stuart Terheege (RFU)
Last five meetings: (2019, 6N) Scotland 13 Ireland 22. (2019, RWC) Ireland 27 Scotland 3. (2020, 6N) Ireland 19 Scotland 12. (2020, ANC) Ireland 31 Scotland 16. (2021, 6N) Scotland 24 Ireland 27.
Overall head-to-head: Played 138. Ireland 67 wins, Scotland 66 wins, Draws 5.
Six Nations form guide: Ireland – Won 29-7 v Wales (h); Lost _ 24-30 v France (a); Won 57-6 v Italy (h); Won 32-15 v England (a). Scotland – Won 20-17 v England (h); Lost 17-20 v Wales (a); Lost 17-36 v France (h); 33-22 v Italy (a).
Betting: 1-10 Ireland, 40-1 Draw, 6-1 Scotland. Handicap odds (Scotland + 17pts) Evens Ireland, 22/1 Draw, Evens Scotland.
Forecast: Ireland to win.