For a third-place play-off in a made-up tournament, this one has a must-win feel about it for Andy Farrell's Ireland.

It seems like a lifetime ago but prior to the Six Nations being postponed back in March, Ireland had just been completely outplayed by England in Twickenham and the only saving grace, they insisted, was a game to come against Italy within two weeks, an opportunity to right a few wrongs.

The suspension of the tournament meant the players had to stew in the pot of a miserable performance for what turned out to be a seven-month international break.

As it stands Ireland are due to start their 2021 Six Nations in Wales on 7 February, just over two months away.

And if it turns out that their last three outings before that are made up of another no-show against England, a thoroughly unconvincing win over Georgia and a Dublin defeat to Scotland, then it’s going to be a long winter.

The stats are in Ireland's favour but they are not an accurate reading of the room temperature.

Scotland’s last win in Dublin came in 2010 at Croke Park and Ireland have been victorious in eight of the last nine ties, the odd one out being a 2017 clash in Murrayfield.

But Scotland are vastly improved since the 27-3 defeat at the World Cup just over a year ago and showed signs that they were closing in during February's 19-12 loss.

Indeed, that’s regarded as a match they literally let slip through their hands, Stuart Hogg dropping a ball over the line in the second half.

Scotland finished second in Group B thanks to their 28-17 away win over Italy and the walkover points from the match against Fiji that was called off, while they lost 22-15 to France in Edinburgh.

"We’ve been together for the past two months and from a coaching perspective it has been a real joy seeing the group come together and work so hard to improve both individually and collectively," said boss Gregor Townsend, who has seen his side win their last three games on the road, a run not bettered since 1927.

"We are looking forward to facing Ireland in what will be an opportunity to continue our progress away from home once again." 

Townsend has made six changes to his starting XV with South African out-half Jaco van der Walt, who has just qualified on residency, earning a debut.

Duncan Taylor, Darcy Graham, Blair Cowan, Huw Jones and Rory Sutherland return to the side. 

Winger Duhan van der Merwe sits at the top of the 'metres gained’ list for the tournament, the Edinburgh flyer has made 186, as well as beating 12 defenders, another Autumn Nations Cup record.

Van der Walt will go up against the returning Johnny Sexton, whose inclusion should serve togalvanize a team, which Farrell admits has struggled for belief.


All you need to know: Ireland v Scotland


"It’s a big boost for the lads, it brings a feeling to the group that makes everyone feel right and ready to go for a big Test match," said Farrell of his captain's return from a groin strain. 

That they shouldn’t need their 35-year-old leader for that is a matter for another day.

Sexton is also one of six changes to the side that laboured to victory last week over Georgia, with Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw linking up in midfield again.

In the pack, Cian Healy, Peter O’Mahony and Caelan Doris return. Ulster prop Eric O’Sullivan is set to become the 12th new cap of 2020 should he feature off the bench.

The Ireland camp has been busy emphasising that they are creating chances but just falling short on execution, most notably in the defeat to France at the end of the Six Nations and in the two-try win over Georgia.

"Everybody has a fear of failure, to be honest," said Mike Catt, the attack coach who joined up with the squad after the World Cup. 

"I think the performance anxiety, for us, under Andy, is... you get rid of that anxiety by preparing well, by putting yourselves in good positions, by putting yourself in a good frame of mind really. 

"Rugby union is about decision-making, whether it’s in attack of defence or your kicking game. I think we’ve progressed really well in certain areas but there are still certain areas where we need to go up another two or three levels.

"Our execution last week wasn’t acceptable. As a group of coaches we believe where we are going is the right way. It does take time."

This game is almost too tight to call, but the fear of finishing off the year with a home defeat to Scotland should really be enough to drive the hosts on.

Scotland will come pumped up and Ireland just need to look back at the last two weekends to know what that looks like.

A failure to match Scotland in the intensity stakes will stand as a dreadful indictment of the team’s mental strength, for the development of which they have drafted in high performance coach Gary Keegan

Defeat here would make for a miserable Christmas for Ireland. 

Verdict: Ireland 

Ireland: Jacob Stockdale, Hugo Keenan, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Keith Earls, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony, Caelan Doris. 

Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Eric O'Sullivan, John Ryan, Quinn Roux, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Chris Farrell. 

Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Duncan Taylor, Duhan van der Merwe, Jaco van der Walt, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray, Blade Thomson, Jamie Ritchie, Matt Fagerson.

Replacements: Stuart McInally, Oli Kebble, Willem Nel, Sam Skinner, Blair Cowan, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Huw Jones, Sean Maitland.

Referee: Matt Carley 

Follow Ireland v Scotland this Saturday via our live blog on RTÉ.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app, watch live on RTÉ 2 from 1.30pm, or listen to live commentary on RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday Sport 

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