Ireland eye victorious Croke Park farewell
March 18, 2010
Will Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll get his hands on the Six Nations or Triple Crown silverware this weekend? © Getty Images
Ireland will bring the curtain down on their four-year stay at Croke Park this weekend with Scotland hoping to spoil the party by ending the hosts' hopes of a Triple Crown.
Declan Kidney's side remain in the hunt for the Championship title but having lost to rivals France in Paris last month they require not only a big win over the Scots but also England to upset the Grand Slam-chasing French in Paris the same day.
However, the home side are unlikely to look any further than their final Croke Park appearance that comes ahead of a move to the purpose-built 50,000-seater Aviva Stadium later this year. The traditional home of the GAA has served Ireland well with only two sides - Wales and New Zealand - having got the better of them in their 13 previous clashes at the ground affectionately known as Croker. That glory-laden period has also reaped a famous Grand Slam and two Triple Crowns - and victory on Saturday would set the seal on an incredible fifth Triple Crown in seven years.
If it had not been for an exceptional French side then Kidney and co may well have been closing in on back-to-back Slams but they were out-thought and out-fought at the Stade de France in a game that was always going to go a long way to deciding the destiny of this year's title. The Irish started slowly against a determined Italy, who would go on to trouble everyone except France, before coming off second best against Les Bleus in Paris.
But they underlined their true class by bouncing back with an impressive defensive display laying the foundation for their victory over England at Twickenham. That game was punctuated with a brace of tries for winger Tommy Bowe and another for livewire Keith Earls and that cutting edge was evident again against Wales in Dublin with Earls and scrum-half Tomas O'Leary delivering the knock-out blows when the Les Kiss-drilled defence had strangled what little signs of life the Welsh offered.
Scotland enter the game staring at the wooden spoon having suffered more than their fair share of heartache in this year's Championship. A battling if largely-uninspiring display against the French kicked off their campaign before twice doing enough to win a rollercoaster clash with Wales before suffering an agonising last gasp loss. Despite back-to-back defeats there was still enough positives to deflect the criticism but a stunning upset against Italy in Rome saw that goodwill evaporate. A share of the spoils in this year's Calcutta Cup clash with England restored a little respectability but leaves them on course for their third wooden spoon in the last seven years.
Kidney has kept faith with the side that swept Wales aside in a move that offered a reprieve for fly-half Jonathan Sexton who suffered an off day with the boot last time out. Elsewhere, inside-centre Gordon D'Arcy has been given every opportunity to recover from the bruised knee that curtailed his game on Saturday while Keith Earls and David Wallace have shaken off calf and eye problems respectively. Loose-head Cian Healy is another to have shrugged off injury concerns, this time a shoulder complaint, with the lure of the last game at Croke Park apparently a powerful tonic. Captain Brian O'Driscoll stole the headlines last weekend on the occasion of his 100th Ireland cap but he and the rest of the team will have to accept second billing on Saturday with the stadium set to take centre stage.
Robinson saw enough from his charges against England to warrant giving them the chance to kick on against the Irish with the so-called Killer Bs - back row trio Kelly Brown, John Barclay and Johnnie Beattie - set to be the driving force of the side once again. The Glasgow trio have been at the heart of everything good about the Scots this year but they will face arguably their toughest challenge against an experienced Irish back row featuring Lions trio Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip who are not in the habit of giving an inch.
Robinson is all too aware that his side will need much more than the power and exceptional work rate of his back row stars to score a win in Dublin. Like England, the Scots lack a cutting edge and have struggled to threaten with ball in hand. The miserly Irish defence is also unlikely to offer many opportunities so the Scots will need to clinical where they have previously spurned chances. Scotland may well have taken a step forward in the autumn but have failed to maintain that momentum and are arguably regressing.
In contrast, Ireland have shown a breath-taking ability to cut open their rivals and will be confident of unlocking the Scots defence while also shackling their limited back division. Saltire Pride may prevent the Irish from notching the kind of victory that would keep their Championship hopes alive but yet another Triple Crown success should ensure the Croke Park party goes with a bang.
Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster); T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), T Buckley (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster), S Jennings (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O'Gara (Munster), R Kearney (Leinster)
Scotland: H Southwell (Stade Francais); S Lamont (Scarlets), N De Luca (Edinburgh), G Morrison (Glasgow), M Evans (Glasgow); D Parks (Glasgow), C Cusiter (Glasgow, capt); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), E Murray (Northampton), J Hamilton (Edinburgh), A Kellock (Glasgow), K Brown (Glasgow), J Barclay (Glasgow), J Beattie (Glasgow).
Replacements: S Lawson (Gloucester), A Dickinson (Gloucester), R Gray (Glasgow), A MacDonald (Edinburgh), M Blair (Edinburgh), P Godman (Edinburgh), S Danielli (Ulster).
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (SA)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (SA), Jerome Garces (Fra)
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.