Ireland are fancied to kick off the 2017 Six Nations championship with a fifth straight win over Scotland but the visitors may be made to work hard for victory at Murrayfield.
The men in green romped to a 40-10 success on their last trip to Edinburgh a couple of years ago, a closing-day result which helped Joe Schmidt’s side top the table on points difference and left the hosts to pick up the wooden spoon.
However, there was much more to like about Scotland’s performance in a 35-25 defeat in Dublin just under 12 months ago, which formed part of a solid campaign featuring wins over France and Italy, plus competitive clashes with England and Wales.
Vern Cotter will also have taken heart from the autumn internationals, even though Scotland somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Australia before edging out Argentina and crushing Georgia.
This progressive and committed outfit can match most teams for intensity and physical strength in almost all facets of play but just lack the ability to be clinical in the red zone when setting up scoring opportunities.
Club results for Glasgow and Edinburgh in Europe this term have enhanced the view that Scotland are definitely on an upward curve, although attack coach Jason O’Halloran believes the best is yet to come.
“This team will ultimately be at its best in a couple of years’ time when we get more guys up around that 50-cap mark and grow that leadership culture,” he admitted.
That valid point may ultimately prove crucial against a battle-hardened Ireland team, which is fancied to prevail by 1-12 points at 13/10.
The 2014 and 2015 champions suffered a blip 12 months ago but bounced back in impressive fashion, going close to a series win in South Africa before enjoying their greatest triumph when upsetting World Cup winners New Zealand in Chicago.
A quick run down the Ireland squad shows they are very much the finished article, with captain Rory Best boasting a century of caps, Jamie Heaslip 91 and the likes of Cian Healy, Conor Murray, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney all bringing huge experience to the party.
The loss of veteran fly-half Johnny Sexton to injury is a blow but assistant coach Simon Easterby has plenty of faith in 19-cap Paddy Jackson, stating: “He has proven himself over a number of months but also going back to the summer. He can control the side and dictate the play.”
Although the All Blacks avenged that loss in America when prevailing 21-9 at Aviva Stadium in November, Schmidt’s side held their nerve to fight back well after an early blitz that day.
Further evidence that this group knows how to handle pressure was on show when they came from behind to beat Australia and they should have the nous to see off a spirited bid from Scotland.