Nations Cup: Ireland vs Scotland talking points

Ireland host Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday in the final round Autumn Nations Cup fixtures (2.15pm kick-off); Test will decide third/fourth place in the tournament; First meeting between the sides since Ireland’s tight 19-12 Six Nations win in February

Last Updated: 04/12/20 3:14pm

Will Johnny Sexton or Stuart Hogg lead their nation to a positive 2020 finish?
Will Johnny Sexton or Stuart Hogg lead their nation to a positive 2020 finish?

Ireland host Scotland on Saturday in the final round of Autumn Nations Cup fixtures, with both looking to end inconsistent 2020 campaigns on a high…

Read five talking points ahead of kick-off below…

Farrell feeling the pressure?

Andy Farrell began his tenure as Ireland head coach with an unconvincing 19-12 win over Scotland in February and will be eager to end an inconsistent year with a similar result and, ideally, an improved display.

Having finished third in the Six Nations, a pair of Twickenham defeats to England, combined with a loss to France in Paris, led Irish rugby bosses to rate the head coach’s performance since succeeding Joe Schmidt as an “average return.”

Farrell has won the other five of his eight fixtures to date, although his team have not always been convincing, including in last weekend’s 23-10 success against Georgia.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has come in for criticism in Ireland and is under some pressure
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has come in for criticism in Ireland and is under some pressure

The 45-year-old is confident he will learn from the setbacks endured in 2020 and insists he can handle the pressures of the role. A positive end to the year to quell growing doubts among the Irish public would be more than welcome.

The Englishman, who has already used more than 40 players during an experimental period severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, anticipated a bumpy ride in the role and is confident he can cope with the pressures.

“It’s been a strange old year for everyone. A little bit stop-start,” said Farrell.

“I 100 per cent know there are going to be massive ups and downs and there’s never a smooth road.

“But the learnings that you take along the way, that’s going to make you stronger in the long run and that’s what I will take from it.

“I am big enough and ugly enough to have been around professional sport most of my life. This is another big game, I am aware of that, but the stress levels are okay.”

Scotland’s dismal Dublin record

Recent history is not on Scotland’s side. The Scots have won five of the past 24 meetings between the two countries, dating back to March 2002.

Their solitary success in 11 visits to Dublin during that time came a decade ago courtesy of a 23-20 victory at Croke Park which denied Ireland a Triple Crown.

That said, they were extremely unlucky to leave the Aviva Stadium empty-handed earlier this year after a self-confessed “schoolboy error” from captain Stuart Hogg cost them dearly – the full-back dropping the ball over the line in the act of grounding.

Scotland lost narrowly to Ireland in Dublin in the Six Nations in February, with Stuart Hogg's knock on over the try-line crucial
Scotland lost narrowly to Ireland in Dublin in the Six Nations in February, with Stuart Hogg’s knock on over the try-line crucial

The underwhelming manner of Ireland’s win over Georgia last weekend should give Gregor Townsend’s men hope of improving their dismal record.

Sexton back for strengthened Ireland

After a series of experimental teams – and a mixed bag of performances to match – Farrell has been almost obliged to name arguably his strongest available team for the clash.

The six changes to the hosts’ starting XV include Johnny Sexton returning from a two-game injury layoff. Captain Sexton raised a few eyebrows this week when revealing aspirations of playing at the next World Cup, by which time he will be 38.

Farrell has stressed reputation alone will be insufficient to secure a seat on the plane to France in 2023. Having seen Ross Byrne and Billy Burns given chances in his absence, Sexton will be desperate to dampen doubts about his fitness and underline his status as first-choice fly-half.

Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton have returned from injury for Saturday's Test
Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton have returned from injury for Saturday’s Test

“It’s always going to be about performance – it has to be,” head coach Farrell said of Sexton.

“The hunger and the drive in Johnny is never going to be any different. He’ll always strive to be the best that he can, so I’m sure his performances are going to be top drawer.

“The older you get and the more you that you play, it’s always going to be about fitness and making sure you stay healthy. At this moment in time, Johnny feels really healthy.

“We’re pleased with where he’s at and the drive he has and we’ll keep assessing where we are at.”

Van the man?

Scotland’s outside-half will also be under the spotlight. Townsend hailed Scotland’s growing depth in that department after selecting the fifth fly-half of the autumn series in debutant Jaco van der Walt.

The 26-year-old Edinburgh playmaker, born in South Africa, has completed his residency qualification and will make his Test debut.

He follows Finn Russell, Adam Hastings, Stuart Hogg and Duncan Weir into the role during the current tournament. With Van der Walt and fly-half Sexton at opposing ends of their international careers, it promises to be an intriguing battle between the two number 10s.

“Just getting used to international rugby will be a great experience for him, and getting used to playing with new team- mates inside and outside him,” Scotland coach Gregor Townsend said of Van der Walt.

Jaco van der Walt will make his Scotland debut in Dublin, starting at 10
Jaco van der Walt will make his Scotland debut in Dublin, starting at 10

“And just doing what he’s been doing really well for Edinburgh. This year and last year, he’s taken his game to another level.

“Defensively he must be one of the best tackling stand-offs in world rugby. His passing and his kicking is at a high level.

“And he’ll just be looking at ways to best influence a defence. And that will be just a little bit quicker at international level.

“But we’ve got real belief and faith in his ability and those around him to bring the best out of our backline and our team attack this weekend.”

Six Nations looms large

While third place in the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup is the immediate prize, it is fair to say both coaches have eyes on the bigger picture.

Townsend has revealed his desire to extend his Scotland contract until the next World Cup, while Farrell is still searching for consistency during a transitional period since succeeding Joe Schmidt.

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend is interested in extending his contract
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend is interested in extending his contract

Next year’s Six Nations, which begins in two months’ time, is already on the radar and performances and results in that competition will undoubtedly attract more scrutiny than those produced in the present one.

Taking some momentum into the winter should serve as a major incentive for both sides.

“You guys (the media) will obviously judge the performance at the weekend [against Georgia] and you won’t necessarily see the steps we’re taking on a daily basis behind the scenes,” Farrell said this week.

“But we feel that we are working towards improving all aspects of our game.

“The fundamentals of the game always have to be strong. Finding the balance of how you improve the rest of the game, that’s the tricky piece but it’s one we’ve started and one we feel, behind the scenes, is going in the right direction.”

Team News

Ireland: 15 Jacob Stockdale,14 Hugo Keenan, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray; 1 Cian Healy, 2 Rob Herring, 3 Andrew Porter, 4 Iain Henderson, 5 James Ryan (c), 6 CJ Stander, 7 Peter O’Mahony, 8 Caelan Doris.

Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher, 17 Eric O’Sullivan, 18 John Ryan, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Chris Farrell.

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg (c), 14 Darcy Graham, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Duncan Taylor, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Ali Price; 1 Rory Sutherland, 2 Fraser Brown, 3 Zander Fagerson, 4 Scott Cummings, 5 Jonny Gray, 6 Blade Thomson, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 8 Matt Fagerson

Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Willem Nel, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Blair Cowan, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Huw Jones, 23 Sean Maitland.

Source : Sky Sports