YOKOHAMA, 21 Sep – A preview of the Pool A match between Ireland and Scotland, which kicks off at 16:45 on Sunday at International Stadium Yokohama.
The Big Picture
Not since 2007, when they imploded horribly in France, has so much been expected of an Ireland team going into a World Cup. They are clear favourites to top Pool A and the Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend was not about to talk them down when naming his own team on Friday. "They’re currently ranked No.1 in the world," he said, as if anyone needed to be reminded. The pressure is all on Ireland, then. Can they handle it this time?
Sunday’s opponents have met 24 times since 2000, with Ireland racking up 18 wins to Scotland’s six. The fixture that most informs the form guide was at Murrayfield in February when Joe Schmidt’s team won ugly, 22-13, in an error-strewn game. Ireland, assuredly, will be a more formidable force in Yokohama, having emerged from a dip in form after an all-conquering 2018. We can expect Scotland to kick on, too, but the sense is that Ireland have more improvement in them.
TEAM ANNOUNCEMENT— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) September 20, 2019
Your Scotland team to play Ireland in this Sunday’s Rugby World Cup Pool A opener in Yokohama has been announced!
Kick-off 4.45pm local time, 8.45am BST - Live on ITV#AsOne #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/YcooIYciQ6
Captain Rory Best becomes the third player to represent Ireland at four World Cups, after Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell. If he is to manage what no previous Irish captain has – and leads his team into the semi-finals – momentum must come from an emphatic opening performance. It should be an encounter with no shortage of edge. A litany of incidents in the recent past – in Pro 14 and Six Nations combat – have contributed to an intense rivalry.
Scotland have pace and flair in abundance. Their back three – Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland – look at least a match for their Irish equivalents, especially as Ireland must do without that majestic warrior Rob Kearney and the dangerous Keith Earls. Ireland will be braced for some Scottish risk-taking: in Finn Russell the underdogs have a playmaker of sublime talent who can hurt any team in unexpected ways. To win, they will need him to find space that others cannot see.
The match, though, is more likely to be won up front and Ireland’s superior power in the front five could be the difference. On all known form, they should have the better of the scrum. The lineout contest will be fascinating and Ireland will need quality ball to get their backline moving. If the second-row combination of James Ryan, pictured above, and Iain Henderson gels, they should have enough to win and take command of the pool.
Form guide (most recent matches first)
Played 135: Ireland 63W-Scotland 67W-Drawn 6
In the spotlight
Scotland have shown their respect for Johnny Sexton, the 2018 World Player of the Year, by consistently targeting him. Get at Sexton, the theory goes, and Ireland will unravel. The same applies to his half-back partner Conor Murray, who reacted angrily to Glasgow players targeting his standing leg when in the act of kicking a couple of years back. The Glasgow coach then was Gregor Townsend, now in the Scotland box, who gave Murray’s complaints short shrift.
Less than a year ago, after the All Blacks were conquered in Dublin, the Sexton-Murray partnership was hailed as the world’s best. That was then. They will need big performances in Yokohama to answer those who say their powers are waning.
Townsend has selected a vastly experienced Scotland side led by Stuart McInally and boasting 630 caps, with another 151 among the replacements. Flanker Jamie Ritchie, still recovering from a broken cheekbone, must wait for his World Cup debut and full-back Blair Kinghorn also sits out the first match after a recurrence of symptoms from a head injury sustained in Scotland’s final warm-up match against Georgia.
In Ireland’s back three, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway, both blessed with speed and an explosive step, are excellent replacements for Rob Kearney and Keith Earls. Full-back Kearney and winger Earls should return for the second pool game, against Japan on Saturday 27 September. Reserve fly-half Joey Carbery, still recovering from an ankle injury, is also likely to return for that fixture. His place on the bench goes to Jack Carty, in line for an eighth cap in his first World Cup.
Stats & Trivia
Ireland lost their only previous World Cup encounter with Scotland. On 12 October 1991, Scotland emerged victorious 24-15 at Murrayfield. A try was still worth four points and Gavin Hastings scored 13 points for the hosts. Ralph Keyes posted all 15 points for Ireland.
Ireland is the only country in World Cup history to reach the quarter-finals more than three times and never make it to the semi-finals.
Only once, in 2011, have Scotland failed to successfully negotiate the pool phase as they came third behind England and Argentina. Unlike Ireland they have made the semi-finals – but just once, in 1991.
Ireland skipper Rory Best will be facing Scotland for the 15th time in test matches, equalling the Ireland record shared by Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara.
"We know Finn Russell's kicking game has huge variety, so he will be a threat and Stuart Hogg has a very long kicking game. When you match it up with us, with the likes of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, then I don't think there's too much between the teams - wet or dry." Ireland coach Joe Schmidt
"We know what is coming and we know the effort that will be required to stop that. We have to win the ball back, we have to win collisions and have huge tackle numbers throughout our pack especially, and our whole 15." Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.