Ireland v Scotland: Three key battles which could decide the game
Ireland will open their RBS 6 Nations campaign with a home fixture against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Here, we look at the key players who could decide the match.
PAUL O'CONNELL v JIM HAMILTON
Two totems to collide in aerial skirmishes throughout this tussle, and no doubt scrap it out in the tight exchanges too. When Scotland edged out Ireland 12-8 at Murrayfield last year, Hamilton proved a real line-out scourge. Ireland talisman O'Connell had a resurgent autumn Test series though, peaking in that stunning 24-22 defeat to New Zealand. Ireland will need Munster stalwart O'Connell at his abrasive and accurate best to subdue Montpellier battler Hamilton. Former Leicester and Gloucester lock Hamilton will look to spoil as often as possible at the breakdown, but will have to tread carefully given his propensity to concede penalties at the tackle area.
CONOR MURRAY v GREIG LAIDLAW
Keep Laidlaw quiet and Ireland will hope to suffocate Scotland's rhythm and tempo. The Edinburgh half-back is Scotland's premier playmaker, owing to his ease at either nine or 10. Operating in the French mould of scrum-half generals, Laidlaw will look to drive Scotland's pace, moving into midfield to direct play where possible, but also offering sniping fringe-breaks. Munster's technician Murray is a different breed of nine altogether and will look to bring all his physicality to bear to overpower his Scotland counterpart. While Murray will cede Ireland's backline control to fly-half Johnny Sexton, he will hope his defensive zeal will be enough to control this confrontation.
ROB KEARNEY v STUART HOGG
Another clash of styles across the backline, with Kearney the tactician taking on Hogg the live-wire counter-attacking talent. Pigeon-hole Hogg as a runner and little else though, and Ireland will come unstuck. Assistant coach Les Kiss spoke in the week, warning Ireland to beware Hogg's siege-gun boot. Kick loosely to the Glasgow flyer and he can either scythe back on foot or blast in behind. Hogg can also pop up in midfield as auxiliary playmaker and Ireland will have to set up their backline defence accordingly. Kearney is rightly regarded among the world's pre-eminent defensive full-backs, assured under the high ball and solid as the last line. But Ireland's 15 will still look to put shape on his side's attacking game too.