Rugby Union: Five Nations - Irish front line primed to scotch Scots' revival hopes

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Even before a ball has been kicked in anger, Ireland's meeting with Scotland in Dublin today is being billed as the battle of the underdogs.

David Llewellyn looks at two sides who may be locked in a desperate tussle to avoid the wooden spoon.

The record as they enter the arena is not good. Both teams are still licking wounded pride following embarrassing setbacks recently against the upstart pups of Italy. Ireland have won just two of their last 10 games, Scotland two out of 12, suffering two record defeats against Australia and South Africa along the way.

The form book favours Scotland. The last time they lost to Ireland was in 1988 at Lansdowne Road. Since then it has been one-way traffic. Ireland, meanwhile, have not managed to put more than 15 points past the Scots since their 1991 World Cup game at Murrayfield.

However, Scotland's new head coach, Jim Telfer, who has taken over the reins following the recent departure of Richie Dixon and David Johnston, is being cautious, not building up expectations. They may travel as favourites, but Telfer is reluctant to accept the label and is urging patience.

"It's what happens at the end of the Five Nations that is important," he said. "I think people should judge this group of players after those four games, rather than this first one. I don't think it is a disaster if we lose. We have these four games to turn our season around. The championship is like four rounds of golf: you can still win even if you don't have such a good first round."

It was Telfer who guided Scotland to their 1984 Grand Slam and the Lions veteran believes that the key areas are in the back row and at half-back. The latter area sees Gary Armstrong, who takes over the captaincy from Rob Wainwright, picking up his 20-match partnership with outside-half Craig Chalmers.

In the most recent meeting between these two sides, at Murrayfield last year, Scotland recorded their biggest win and highest score (38-10) over the Irish. It was also their highest score in the championship.

But while logic dictates that the losers of this particular dog fight will almost certainly be left clutching the dreaded wooden spoon, the Ireland coach, Brian Ashton, thinks that could be a case of barking up the wrong tree and he growled: "People who say that are being premature. I don't think any of the 30 players or either management team regards it in that light."

Keith Wood, the Ireland captain who was injured and consequently missed last season's Tartan humiliation, is confident that the trend of Scotland domination can be reversed. "We are sick of the Scots," he said. "It's about time we won. Last year there was an awful lot of faults, which happens from time to time. I don't think anything like that will happen this year.

"The preparation has gone really well, our back row will be pretty impressive. We've a decent pack and line-out and we will have a few tricks in our back line that could frighten them a bit."

One member of the back row is Eric Miller, who has had an indifferent season at No 8 for Leicester and following his success on the Lions tour, has looked a bit stale. But he epitomises the mood of the upbeat Ireland camp.

"We're very strong up front and, with the type of game we trying to play, it is very hard to stop us once we get going," he said. Clearly, the wooden spoon will not be accepted without a fight.


at Lansdowne Road

C O'Shea London Irish 15 R Shepherd Watsonians

R Wallace Saracens 14 C Joiner Leicester

K Maggs Bristol 13 A Tait Newcastle

M McCall London Irish 12 G Townsend Northampton

D Hickie St Mary's 11 K Logan Wasps

D Humphreys London Irish 10 C Chalmers Melrose

B O'Meara Cork Const 9 G Armstrong Newcastle, capt

R Corrigan Greystones 1 G Graham Newcastle

K Wood Harlequins, capt 2 G Bulloch West of Scotland

P Wallace Saracens 3 M Stewart Northampton

P Johns Saracens 4 D Cronin Wasps

M O'Kelly London Irish 5 D Weir Newcastle

D Corkery Bristol 6 R Wainwright Dundee HSFP

K Dawson London Irish 7 S Holmes London Scottish

E Miller Leicester 8 P Walton Newcastle

Referee: A Watson (South Africa) Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC1)

Replacements: 16 S McDowell (Ballymena); 17 E Elwood (Galwegians); 18 S McIvor (Garryowen); 19 N Popplewell (Newcastle); 20 R Nesdale (Newcastle); 21 G Fulcher (London Irish); 22 V Costello (St Mary's).

Replacements: 16 T Stanger (Hawick); 17 D Lee (London Scottish); 18 A Nicol (Bath); 19 A Roxburgh (Kelso); 20 S Grimes (Watsonians); 21 D Hilton (Bath); 22 G Scott (Dundee HSFP).