Ireland’s quest for the sporting immortality that would come with a first Grand Slam since 1948 continues when they face Scotland in today’s Six Nations international at Murrayfield.
And as if the weight of history didn’t weigh heavily enough on Ireland’s shoulders, there is also the unwelcome knowledge that the Six Nations usually produces at least one shock result a Championship — and it hasn’t happened yet.
Ireland will certainly be huge favorites this weekend, but Declan Kidney, their coach, has been warning against the perils of complacency ever since the side kept their bid for a clean sweep on course with a 14-13 win over England.
Almost as additional insurance against those dangers, the former Munster boss has freshened up his starting side for the first time this tournament by making four changes.
Gordon D’Arcy, who a year ago broke his arm in the Six Nations, comes in at inside center for Paddy Wallace, while veteran scrum-half Peter Stringer has ousted Tomas O’Leary after impressing off the bench against England.
In the pack, Denis Leamy takes over from Jamie Heaslip at No. 8, while at hooker, Rory Best starts instead of Jerry Flannery.
Having been out in the cold, or at least among the replacements, the quartet will all be keen to prove their worth. Talk of a Championship decider away to reigning champions Wales in Cardiff the following week can wait.
Stringer, axed during the 2007 World Cup, said: “I suppose it’s fair to say my whole world was rocked when I was dropped. The fear of not being involved in this team is devastating.”
The decision of Kidney, in his first Six Nations as Ireland coach, to change things around for this match has also had a salutary effect on those who’ve retained their places, as lock Donncha O’Callaghan explained.
“When you look at your teammates, you see four guys got bad news, so you know how lucky you are to be involved in it,” O’Callaghan said. “Look at the quality of the players coming in and going out — it shows what a strong squad we have. You know when you’re given a chance to perform you have to take it.”
Scotland went a long way to staving off the threat of the wooden spoon with a 26-6 victory over fellow strugglers Italy at Murrayfield in the third round.
Frank Hadden, their coach, has restored world-class goal kicker Chris Paterson to his starting line-up at fullback, while in the second row recalled lock Jim Hamilton will hope to make his presence felt after returning from a shoulder injury sustained against France last month.
Hamilton had a bruising one-on-one battle with fellow lock Nathan Hines just to get selected and the Edinburgh second-row said: “It all happened out on the training pitch and even people out walking their dogs were stopping to give their opinion. For him, it was a case of running as fast as he could to test his knee — and for me, it was then hitting him full-on to test the shoulder. The collisions were fairly big — about as tough as it gets, in fact.”
Man-for-man, an Ireland back division with captain Brian O’Driscoll at its heart appears to have more quality than Scotland possess behind the scrum. However, Ireland’s backs rarely shone against England, although they and their supporters at Croke Park would have relaxed far more if outside-half Ronan O’Gara had not had such a bad day with the boot.
Fear of failure can lead to success, but, against a Scotland side with nothing to fear, such an emotion could inhibit Ireland. They would not be the first team with big ambitions to come unstuck at Murrayfield — as prop John Hayes, who will become Ireland’s most-capped player when he makes his 93rd Test appearance today, could doubtless tell some of his less experienced colleagues.
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