Kidney looks to front five to dominate and make Wolfhounds roar
UNLESS some arrangement is struck at short notice, the combatants in tonight's 'A' international between Scotland and Ireland in Netherdale (7.30) will be playing in something of a vacuum, given the absence of live television coverage.
Still, it is not the wider public they need to impress but Declan Kidney and the senior management team, who will be running the rule over their prospective involvement in the Six Nations and, further down the line, the World Cup. In this regard, there is more at stake for Eric Elwood's Irish lads, given the injury woes that have beset the squad ahead of next weekend's opener against Italy.
It leaves a clutch of starters tonight (see panel) in with a genuine shot of making the squad for Rome, which will add an extra dose of spice to what can often be rather insipid, unstructured affairs.
There is a nice look to this Wolfhounds selection, starting with a footballing out-half in Ian Humphreys, who will bring young centres Nevin Spence and Eoin O'Malley onto the ball.
The Irish also take an extremely mobile and balanced back-row to Netherdale and it is a pity that the likes of Willie Faloon will not have the opportunity to showcase their international credentials to a wider audience.
However, it is the front five where most interest lies.
Scrummaging remains an ongoing issue for the national management and Tony Buckley needs to produce against Jon Welsh, the Glasgow loose-head who has given him terrible difficulty in the past.
While Damien Varley should be expected to hit the athletic and lanky pair of Ian Nagle and Devin Toner at line-out time, neither second-row would be renowned as scrummagers. This will put extra pressure on the front-row, who will need their back five to be tight and organised to set a solid platform.
The Scots will go after the Irish scrum and have a canny set of half-backs in Greg Laidlaw (seeking to emulate his uncle Roy's try-scoring knack against the Irish) and David Blair, while John Houston is a hard-running threat in the centre.
However, their key man is No 8 Johnnie Beattie, an excellent player who has recently returned from injury and will be desperate for a dominant display that will thrust him firmly back into Andy Robinson's Six Nations designs.
Ireland won the corresponding fixture at Ravenhill last season on a comfortable 34-19 scoreline but it is likely to be a lot closer this time around.
It would be good to see evidence of the expansive, off-loading game that has been working so well for Leinster this season, but the Wolfhounds back-line play hinges on the quality of possession from the front five, and so we are back to the scrum.
If Buckley and Co can hold the Scottish eight at scrum time, then Ireland are in business. But it's a big if.
SCOTLAND A -- J Thompson; H O'Hare, B Cairns, J Houston, L Jones; D Blair, G Laidlaw (capt); J Welsh, D Hall, G Cross; S MacLeod, F McKenzie; R Wilson, A MacDonald, J Beattie. Reps: F Thomson, M Low, R Harley, R Grant, C Gregor, P Murchie, C Shaw.
WOLFHOUNDS - G Duffy; J Murphy, E O'Malley, N Spence, D Hurley; I Humphreys, T O'Leary; B Wilkinson, D Varley, T Buckley; I Nagle, D Toner; K McLaughlin, W Faloon, C Henry (capt). Reps: N Brady, J Hagan, A Browne, D Ryan, I Boss, N O'Connor, I Whitten.