IRELAND welcome back some of their big hitters for the crucial Six Nations clash with Scotland on Sunday afternoon at a rocking Murrayfield, in what is likely to be Ireland’s toughest game of the 2023 championship.
Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose have recovered from injury to start, while Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw are back on the bench, with Peter O’Mahony and Dan Sheehan now starting.
H Keenan (Leinster); M Hansen (Connacht), G Ringrose (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Lowe (Leinster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); A Porter (Leinster), D Sheehan (Leinster), T Furlong (Leinster); I Henderson (Ulster), J Ryan (Leinster); P O’Mahony (Munster), J van der Flier (Leinster), C Doris (Leinster).
R Kelleher (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), T O’Toole (Ulster), R Baird (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster), J Gibson-Park (Leinster), R Byrne (Leinster), R Henshaw (Leinster).
After watching the Italy versus Ireland game in the Stadio Olimpico and witnessing Italian centre Juan Ignacio Brex breeze past Irish outhalf Ross Byrne you couldn’t help asking the question as to which was slowest: Ross Byrne or the band’s version of Ireland’s Call in Rome prior to kickoff?
Byrne is a solid operator. He will kick his goals, he will kick accurately to touch out of hand, and he will shovel the ball onto the man outside him from deep lying positions all day long.
He will give you a 6/10 performance every day of the week, but he lacks the athleticism and personality of an international class no. 10, and ultimately there is a huge drop off in performance levels when he steps in for captain Jonathan Sexton.
Andy Farrell appears to have made his bed now with regards the Ireland out-half picture for the World Cup later this year. Sexton is obviously top dog, with Byrne at number two. Joey Carbery has completely dropped out of the squad again, after a brief recall, while Ciaran Frawley has returned to the squad despite playing little or no rugby for months.
It would appear to be a straight fight between Frawley and Munster’s Jack Crowley for the last World Cup squad place.
As long as Sexton remains fit and healthy then Ireland will fancy beating everybody, but without him, well that’s a different story. You would not fancy any other Irish out-half up against the mercurial Finn Russell this weekend.
Russell will undoubtedly bring his full box of tricks to proceedings. That could be a moment of magic that cuts Ireland’s defence right open or it could be throwing an intercept try. Or, like in Paris, he might do both in the same game. It certainly is never boring with the maverick Racing 92 ace about.
They will know that if they can deny Ireland the ball then the likes of Sexton and the world-class back row of Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony will struggle to control the game.
Plus, they know that if they can keep moving it wide that they have the ammunition to hurt any team in the world at present, and especially so given the presence of their two South African-born Ivan Drago lookalikes on the wings.
Duhan van der Merwe has pilfered 16 tries in 26 caps for his adopted country, so far, while Kyle Steyn already has six tries from just eight appearances.
Question marks remain around the defence of Mack Hansen and James Lowe.
They can certainly be expected to be tested on Sunday without the ball.
Ultimately, Scotland’s own Grand Slam ambitions came a-cropper in Paris against France, but the manner of the defeat will actually have encouraged head coach Gregor Townsend.
They had been 19-0 down early on, with a lot of that deficit occurring when they had 14 against 15 French.
Eventually, it became 14 apiece in terms of numbers and the Scots fought back to 25-21 before a late Gael Fickou try put some gloss on the scoreboard for France, but the comeback looked briefly on. Townsend and his squad will have taken a lot of solace from that fact.
Have no mistake about it, Ireland are very much on a collision course with Scotland, and not only at Murrayfield on Sunday but also in Paris in October at the World Cup.
They will fancy taking the Irish scalp on both days. Sunday is an opportunity for Ireland to put a marker down for later in the year, while also moving a step closer to what could be an historic Grand Slam.