DUBLIN (AFP) – Ireland host Scotland in their opening Six Nations clash in Dublin tonight with both sides desperate to put a disappointing World Cup behind them.
The Scots’ last win in Dublin came 10 years ago while the Irish have lost just one home Six Nations match – to England in 2019 – in the past five years.
Here AFP Sport picks out three key things which could decide the match:
PRESSURE ON SEXTON
Johnny Sexton (pic below) has faced pressure before with Leinster and Ireland but tonight’s game could be one of his most testing.
The 34-year-old fly-half returns after nearly a two-month absence due to a knee injury but insisted he is raring to go.
He also captains his country for the first time in a Six Nations at an age when he may have thought that possibility had passed him by.
He describes it as the “greatest honour”.
However, some have questioned the appointment as the competitive streak which strays into bad humour at times has jarred in the past.
“He explains it by saying this is the way I am but that is not good enough,” former Ireland fly-half Tony Ward told AFP last year.
“Leaders are meant to inspire not alienate.”
Aside from that, Sexton will be expected to run things with Scotland number one Finn Russell absent due to being punished for breaking team rules.
However, he said Adam Hastings – making his first Six Nations start – presents just as much a problem as the Racing 92 star with his “box of tricks”.
Sexton will also be determined to put behind him what was an underwhelming World Cup for him and his team.
He has described the 46-14 mauling by New Zealand in the quarter-finals as one he won’t forget for the rest of his life.
HOGG FACES TOUGH BAPTISM AS SKIPPER
If Sexton is under pressure then spare a thought for Scotland’s new captain Stuart Hogg.
Hard enough in your first Six Nations match as skipper to face a side you have not beaten in Dublin for 10 years and got well beaten by in the World Cup.
Even harder when the other world class player in the Scotland team, Finn Russell is absent.
Hogg, though, has been thorough in seeking advice and was due to speak to another Scotland great who skippered the side from full-back, Gavin Hastings.
“Gavin would be a good one to have a chat with…of how you bring the best out of players in the frontline from being so far behind,” said the 27-year-old.
Hogg’s ability to turn a game with his breaks into the backline could hurt the Irish defence provided he is not too distracted by his added responsibilities.
Captaincy may also take his mind off other matters after he revealed he lost his hair following a hair transplant because he bleached it too quickly.
A second operation has, however, restored his locks.
“It was a little bit painful,” he told the Rugby Union podcast.
He will hope tonight is not as painful.
WILL THE IRISH DOG BITE?
Irish rugby icon Brian O’Driscoll believes there is no “dog” in the present Irish scrum and that is hurting them.
The former centre said there is no one like ex-Irish flanker Sean O’Brien in being able to “impose themselves” on the opposition and be “nasty”.
His former Leinster teammate Sexton smiled when it was raised.
“I saw the headline and the gist of it. Look, I can understand what he is saying.
“But there are a few guys in there who have a bit of grunt about them. Hopefully they can show that.”