Six Nations 2016: Scots in rude health but face daunting Irish date

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
BBC Scotland's Six Nations Extra
Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland
Date: Saturday, 19 March Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Coverage: Live on ITV, BBC Radio 5 live Sports Extra, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app, plus live text commentary.

The love-bombing of the Scots started not long after Glen Jackson blew his whistle on Sunday evening at Murrayfield, a battalion of Irish players - current and past - lining up to pour praise on Vern Cotter's renaissance team.

On TV and radio, in newspapers and podcasts they discussed the gathering threat that the new Scotland posed, the real and present danger they will carry with them to Dublin.

Shane Horgan, the former wing, spoke about it. Sean O'Brien and Luke Fitzgerald, too. Keith Wood got involved as well. There were others. Andrew Trimble is in Joe Schmidt's team on Saturday. "Vern Cotter's done an unbelievable job with them and they're a big, big threat," said the Ulster wing.

"They've got the big, big win over France last weekend and I don't think that really surprised anybody," he added. "The rugby they were playing, they were more than capable of beating France. They'll come to Dublin with their tails up and they're going to be a handful so we've plenty of homework to do."

Ireland wing Andrew Trimble takes on the Italy defence
Ireland wing Andrew Trimble says "this is definitely the best Scotland team I've faced"

Some of this stuff has been said before, of course, but not to the same extent or with the same depth of feeling. Ireland have said some flattering words about Scotland in the recent past but there was a hollowness to much of them, a feeling that they were praising them because they felt that was the decent thing to do.

Ireland have won three of the last four meetings in the Six Nations with a points difference of 18 in 2012, 22 in 2014 and 30 in 2015. In the history of the Six Nations they have won 13 out of 16 against Scotland, eight of those victories by 20 points or more.

Scotland v Ireland in Six Nations - last decade
2015 - Scotland 10-40 Ireland2014 - Ireland 28-6 Scotland
2013 - Scotland 12-8 Ireland2012 - Ireland 32-14 Scotland
2011 - Scotland 18-21 Ireland2010 - Ireland 20-23 Scotland
2009 - Scotland 15-22 Ireland2008 - Ireland 34-13 Scotland
2007 - Scotland 18-19 Ireland2006 - Ireland 15-9 Scotland

Those kind of landslides don't tend to earn you genuine respect from an opponent, but this time it all feels a little different.

For Ireland, it's very different. The team that won back-to-back Six Nations' titles hasn't been around much of late. Seven of the side that trampled Scotland underfoot on that dramatic last day a year ago will not be starting on Saturday.

Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Fitzgerald are all injured. Cian Healy, a ball-carrying colossus 12 months ago, hasn't regained his starting place after a long spell out with injury. Paul O'Connell has retired. Peter O'Mahony and O'Brien are still on the casualty list.

Six Nations 2015: Ireland beat Scotland to win championship

They're a team in transition. Still formidable, but beatable. Still with enough artillery to gun Scotland down, but also with weakness in their ranks that Cotter's team will fancy their chances of exposing.

Cotter didn't elaborate on any of this on Thursday. He named his team and that was about as much information as he gave away.

A Trappist monk would have been more giving. These press conferences should be held in future in a remote hillside monastery rather than at Murrayfield. The backdrop would be spectacularly different but the silence would be the same.

Duncan Weir is in instead of Finn Russell, who is out with a brain injury (or concussion as it is otherwise known). Peter Horne might feel aggrieved to miss out given how good he was when sprung into the 10 slot so early against France.

Cotter, though, sees Horne as a centre first and a stand-off second rather than the other way around. Weir has been in good form for Glasgow at any rate. Having Horne on the bench provides Cotter with a huge degree of comfort.

Tim Swinson has the daunting task of replacing Jonny Gray's immense work-rate in the second row and Ryan Wilson takes over from Josh Strauss in the back row.

Three changes to the team and welcome returns on the bench. Rob Harley is back in the frame as dual cover in the back two rows of the scrum. Henry Pyrgos is there instead of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, a change that makes Scotland's bench stronger. Pyrgos is a terrific weapon to have in reserve, a leader who is returning to form after a long lay-off.

You have to go back 20 years to find the last time that Scotland won three championship games in a row and if they do it this time it wouldn't just fuel talk of a corner having being turned but would also drop just over two million euros into the SRU's coffers. That's the prize for finishing third, the position that Scotland currently occupy.

Scotland's best Six Nations finishes
2001: ThirdW 2 D 1 L 2 Pts 5 Tries 8
2006: ThirdW 3 D 0 L 2 Pts 6 Tries 5
2013: ThirdW 2 D 0 L 3 Pts 4 Tries 7

The Scots have never gone to Dublin in such rude health since Five Nations became Six. They have a scrum that caused Italy and France major problems, winning 10 penalties and two free-kicks in those games. WP Nel has been a rock on the tight-head, Alasdair Dickinson a destructive force at loose-head. Only Dan Cole of England has played more minutes in this championship than the Scottish props. The pair of them are a seismic, and too often understated, part of the team's progression.

There's been much talk in Ireland of Scotland's back row, particularly of John Hardie and how good he is over the ball and how much of a wrecking ball he is in the tackle. Munster's Tommy O'Donnell has come into the Irish side at open-side, replacing Leinster's callow seven, Josh van der Flier. Hardie versus O'Donnell will be a compelling battle.

Greig Laidlaw's leadership is maturing by the week and around him in that backline are guys who can create once given an opportunity. Duncan Taylor has been a huge addition. Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser are terrific finishers whose stats stand up against any of those in the rest of the tournament.

Behind them, Stuart Hogg. If it wasn't for Billy Vunipola then Hogg could well be man of the championship right now. He's not far off it as it is.

All very impressive, all very hopeful. Cotter's heart might be beating fast at the prospect of facing Ireland on Saturday but you couldn't tell. He remains heroically deadpan - and it's no harm.

The Scottish players who have spoken this week have been calm and composed. There is no sense of two wins being enough for this season, no suggestion of fulfilment. They're hungry, but also wary. Dublin has brought Scotland one championship win in 16 years - a place of untold misery.

They climbed a mountain against France, but there's another to come. Ireland might be missing some of their finest sons of 2015, but for Scotland the challenge remains a hugely daunting one.

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