WHILE there remains an issue over one backline position, the coaches for both Ireland and Scotland have more selection options for this Saturday’s fourth round game in Dublin (kickoff Saturday 10.15pm Malaysia) as more players are available after recovering from injury.
It’s a game Ireland must win if it wants to be on the way to secure a second Grand Slam in the 19-year history of the competition but a win for Scotland means all four of the home nations have a chance to win the title, provided England beats France in Paris a few hours later and Wales beats Italy on Sunday.
The position that looks cursed for the team in green since a few months ago is at outside centre, as injuries first kept Garry Ringrose and then Robbie Henshaw out, the latter replaced by Chris Farrell in the third round 37-27 win against Wales.
What a game that was for the powerfully-built Farrell who was named man-of-the-match despite only making his third appearance for the national side. But he injured his knee during training and will also be out of the final round two weekends from now.
The good news for coach Joe Schmidt is that Ringrose has made a faster than expected recovery from the injury sustained in December. Ringrose is not a bad option considering that he has won 11 caps since his debut in 2016 but the downside is he has played only 55 minutes of club rugby since that injury.
Others who should be available for selection also after being out injured are tighthead Lions prop Tadgh Furlong and lock Iain Henderson, prior to the tournament a first choice pick.
The history between these sides goes back to 1877 and in their 133 meetings, Scotland has won 61 but in the Six Nations, the advantage thus far in 18 editions has been all Ireland’s – title winners three times including back to back in 2014 and 2015 and including three Triple Crowns (wins against all the other three home unions) or a second-placed finish. Ireland’s only Grand Slam so far was won in 2009.
Scotland has nothing to show here but the mood is so upbeat that many diehard supporters are optimistic that this could be their year. Despite very little success in the competition, Scotland’s most recent Six Nations triumph against Ireland was last year, a 27-22 win in Edinburgh.
Coach Gregor Townsend welcomes back senior lock Richie Gray after a long injury layoff which could see him playing alongside younger brother Jonny. Also back after serving a three-year ban for alleged cocaine use is New Zealand-born flanker John Hardie.
There’s nothing flashy in the Irish game but it’s steady and Scotland will have to be at its best to shake Irish confidence.
Scotland was outstanding at the breakdown against England and after a shaky start, also had a good scrum.
Ireland’s problem in the midfield would surely be noted by Scotland and with Huw Jones such a big success there for them in the first three rounds, Scotland will be focusing on this to pile the pressure on the Irish.
England too can expect to be tested by the French in Paris while Wales should not be unduly troubled by Italy in the game on Sunday (kickoff 11pm).
It’s been 19 years now for Italy after being included to make this the Six Nations but so far there is not even the slightest sign than playing against the best in the northern hemisphere has helped lift up Italy’s game.
But the organisers insist on keeping Italy in the competition despite repeated calls in recent years to give a chance to fast improving and the better ranked Georgia.
The third week of the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby further reaffirmed the position of Japan’s Sunwolves, similar to that being experienced by Argentina’s Jaguares.
The Sunwolves opened this year’s campaign with a 32-25 home defeat to the Brumbies, which was followed by a 37-17 loss to the Rebels, also at home.
With games away to the Sharks this weekend and then the Lions, it looks like it’s going to be four straight defeats for the Japanese franchise, despite new signings from New Zealand by coach Jamie Joseph.