Kidney looking for green shoots of optimism
SCOTLAND'S picturesque capital was throbbing yesterday, but today's international showdown in Murrayfield had precious little to do with it ... welcome to the fringe festival.
The month of August sees Edinburgh host a bewildering array of comedy acts, concerts, exhibitions and (God help us) interpretative dance displays. In this environment, it is no surprise the World Cup warm-up contest between Scotland and Ireland has inevitably been relegated to sideshow status.
While thousands will throng the city centre this afternoon to avail of the many forms of entertainment on offer, the 67,000-capacity rugby stadium on the outskirts of the city is likely to be two-thirds empty as Scotland and Ireland go head-to-head.
However, given the general indifference to rugby in Scotland over the past number of years and the fact that this is an early-season friendly, a crowd of around 25,000 would constitute a relative triumph for the beleaguered Scottish Union.
While rustiness is inevitable, those in attendance should witness a more committed contest than is usual with these fixtures as Scotland coach Andy Robinson seeks to extract maximum benefit from one of only two Scottish World Cup dry runs and Ireland set about eradicating memories of their disastrous run-in to France 2007.
The 'fringe' tag can only truly be applied to the visitors, as Robinson lines out the majority of his heavy-hitters, while his counterpart Declan Kidney begins the painstaking process of paring down his squad to the required 30.
It promises to be an intense few weeks for the Ireland coach, who must get his main men up to battle-speed in time for their World Cup opener against the US on September 11, assess their understudies and build the momentum that was glaringly absent four years ago.
It is worth reminding ourselves of that sorry chapter in Irish rugby history. It was the 31-21 Murrayfield defeat to Scotland on August 11, 2007 that first alerted players, management and observers to the fact that something was rotten in Ireland's state of readiness.
The Scots, who had been regular cannon-fodder for Eddie O'Sullivan's team for the previous six years, were a step ahead in thought, deed and intensity. It struck an ominous note, which was compounded by subsequent sub-par showings against Italy and a (hastily arranged) clash with Bayonne, before Ireland limped into the World Cup in no position to mount a meaningful challenge, despite the talent at their disposal.
Lesson learned. Ireland's planning for this World Cup has been exhaustive and defined by a determination to distance themselves from what went before.
While the previous regime became hamstrung by a strict adherence to a 'tried and trusted' selection policy, Kidney has been at pains to widen his options and today's team is an intriguing blend of dark horses, work horses and thoroughbreds.
There are only two survivors from the team that started the compelling 24-8 thumping of England last time out -- out-half Jonathan Sexton and winger Andrew Trimble.
Even allowing for Eoin Reddan's impressive finish to the Six Nations, there is evidence to suggest that, if Tomas O'Leary gets back close to his 2009 form, his bulk and power on the break make him Kidney's first-choice in New Zealand, which heightens the importance of match time with Sexton.
Ronan O'Gara will have something to say about that, of course, but, either way, it allows Kidney to assess his options, which, together with the importance of reintroducing seasoned campaigners such as Rob Kearney, Jerry Flannery, Marcus Horan and John Hayes, meets the main theme.
Victory is not paramount, but it is vital that Ireland extract something tangible from this encounter and avoid injuries.
Early-season errors are acceptable, but it would be encouraging to see Ireland play with the same tempo that scuppered English Grand Slam aspirations last March and marry it to set-piece solidity against a combative home pack.
Whatever the occasion, the Scots can always be depended on to scrap for everything and as Kidney noted during the week, nothing will come easy -- no bad thing when the intention is to prepare for bigger battles ahead.
It is a big Scotland outfit and not just in the forwards; wings Nikki Walker, Sean Lamont and centre Graeme Morrison are all well over six foot and 15 stone.
Morrison will examine the defensive mettle of Paddy Wallace, who, despite his status as regular cover for Gordon D'Arcy, knows his midfield partner Fergus McFadden has his eye on the No 12 spot should D'Arcy's injury issues persist.
There is much to look forward to here, not least the performance of debutant Mike McCarthy, a player who has consistently impressed over the past few seasons, but, with wholesale bench-emptying expected from both sides adding to the unpredictability factor, calling a winner is a perilous exercise.
Any team led by Leo Cullen will be competitive, regardless of its composition; however with more proven combinations and home advantage, the Scots may just shade it.
SCOTLAND -- C Paterson (Edinburgh); N Walker (Ospreys), J Ansbro (London Irish), G Morrison (Glasgow Warriors), S Lamont (Scarlets); R Jackson (Glasgow Warriors), R Lawson (Gloucester, capt); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), G Cross (Edinburgh); J Hamilton (Gloucester), R Gray (Glasgow Warriors); A Strokosch (Gloucester), R Rennie (Edinburgh), J Beattie (Glasgow Warriors). Reps: D Hall (Glasgow Warriors), A Dickinson (Sale Sharks), A Kellock (Glasgow Warriors), D Denton (Edinburgh), G Laidlaw (Edinburgh), N De Luca (Edinburgh), J Cuthbert (Bath).
Ireland -- R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); J Sexton (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster); T Court (Ulster), S Cronin (Leinster), T Buckley (Sale), D Ryan (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster, capt), M McCarthy (Connacht), N Ronan (Munster), D Leamy (Munster). Reps: J Flannery (Munster), M Horan (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), K McLaughlin (Leinster), I Boss (Leinster), F Jones (Munster).
REF -- W Barnes (England)
Scotland v Ireland,
Live, BBC2/Setanta Irl, 2.15