EDINBURGH – Ireland’s world player of the year Jonathan Sexton will have to contend with an in-form Finn Russell as Ireland and their off-colour fly-half seek to recover from an opening defeat to England with a morale-boosting Six Nations success against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Sexton endured an uncomfortable time as a muscular England forced a much-vaunted Ireland side, 2018 Grand Slam champions and November conquerors of the All Blacks on to the back foot, up against the ropes for most of a one-sided contest in Dublin last Saturday that ended with a 32-20 defeat for the Irish.
While the 33-year-old Leinster playmaker looked out of sorts in his first match back after a knee tendon injury, the 26-year-old Russell was razor-sharp in Scotland’s 32-20 home win against Italy, showing the finesse he has found since his move from Glasgow to Paris-based Racing 92 at the end of last season.
The battle between the pair could prove pivotal as Ireland look to avoid suffering back-to-back defeats for the first time since their June 2016 Test series in South Africa – and as the Scots seek to emulate their 27-22 Murrayfield victory they achieved two years ago against an Irish side who sorely missed the absent Sexton.
"Finn is playing very well," said Scotland coach Gregor Townsend. "That was an excellent performance against Italy.
"He is up against not only the best stand-off in the world but the best player in the world (Sexton), a key man for a team that has a number of key men. But Finn always seems to rise to the occasion."
‘Beast within you’
The Murrayfield contest will also be a dress rehearsal for the opening Pool A World Cup clash between the countries in Yokohama on September 23.
The big challenge for Ireland now in 2019 will to be attempt to create history as the first side to lift the Webb Ellis trophy after losing the first game of a World Cup year.
By contrast, they only need go back to 2013, however, to find the last time a team recovered from an opening day loss to lift the Six Nations crown. Wales did so four years ago after starting with a 30-22 defeat by Ireland in Cardiff.
Not that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland will be looking beyond an afternoon of atonement when they line up at Murrayfield, where no visiting side has won in seven successive Six Nations matches.
"We’re hurting," said Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony. "The beast within you wants to put it right and that’s what we have to go and do this week.
"There’s no better challenge than going to Murrayfield and having to put in a performance. We’ve got to dust ourselves off and get back to the things we do well," he added.
Kiwi coach Schmidt, who hands over to Andy Farrell after the World Cup, has made five changes, four of them injury-enforced.
Rob Kearney comes in for his 88th cap at full-back in place of Robbie Henshaw, with Chris Farrell replacing Garry Ringrose at outside centre and South African-born lock Quinn Roux, flanker Sean O’Brien and No 8 Jack Conan all stepping into the pack.
"Last week doesn’t change the mentality too much," Schmidt insisted.
"We have to build our way into the game. We can’t be chasing things and trying to get instant results."
Townsend has made four changes to his starting XV, with wing Blair Kinghorn, a hat-trick star against Italy, benched to make way for the fit-again Sean Maitland.
Meanwhile there are alterations to all three rows of Scotland’s pack, with No 8 Josh Strauss, lock Jonny Gray and prop Simon Berghan included.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)