IF YOU met a member of the Scotland team on the way to Murrayfield today and he asked you the way to a morale-boosting victory, the response would have to be the stereotypical one given to visitors to Ireland seeking directions from locals: ‘I wouldn’t start from here.’
After their losses to France, Wales, Italy and England in the Six Nations Championship, it is hard to know who might constitute the ideal opponents for Scotland as they go in desperate search of that first win of the year. But one thing’s for sure – it would not be Ireland.
Joe Schmidt’s team may have lost their last game to Wales, but they can still win the Championship. The possibility that they will need a sizeable margin of victory to clinch the title will only add to their determination to show Scotland no mercy this afternoon.
A mature and tactically versatile side, Ireland are more than the sum of their parts. With only four tries in their first four games, their attack may lack the cutting edge of old, but they have more than compensated for that with some awe-inspiring defence. Under pressure from England late in their game in Dublin, for example, they showed commendable calmness and self-possession to stifle the life out of their visitors.
In contrast, Scotland are at an altogether earlier stage of their evolution. As head coach Vern Cotter said this week, some of their key playmakers, such as stand-off Finn Russell, are still in their infancy as internationals, while others like full-back Stuart Hogg, although more seasoned, are still several years shy of their peak. What is more, Scotland have been less than the sum of their parts in the tournament so far, playing well in spells yet not quite clicking as a team for prolonged periods.
But, as they plan how to achieve that elusive win, Scotland’s coaching team can honestly say that the bad spells have not been prolonged either. Eliminate poor periods like the last five minutes against Italy, the start of either half at Twickenham and some of the third quarter at home to Wales and Scotland will at least give themselves an opportunity of staying in the contest deep into the match.
“We need to perform for 80 minutes,” assistant coach Duncan Hodge said yesterday. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s all very well playing well in patches, but winning Test matches is about playing for 80 minutes.
“There have been some skill errors and execution errors, but also mental errors as well. You’ll never get the perfect performance, but it’s about getting a sustained performance for a longer part of the game.”
“Massive frustration,” Hodge continued when asked what was the overriding emotion of the campaign so far. “That’s from start to finish. There have been little things in every game – not always identical.
“It’s a tough place out there and games are won and lost on fine margins. We’re losing them on fine margins.
“We know what we’re trying to do. It’s about getting over the line and having that sustained pressure for bigger chunks of the game.
“Everyone is frustrated. We’re trying to learn every week and, generally, we have a youngish side. That’s not an excuse, it’s just reality. We are getting better, but everyone else is getting better as well. It’s not just about us, rugby keeps moving forward.
“There are 15 guys on the pitch and some have more responsibility than others. The more experience everyone has, the more you see situations and know how to rectify problems. It doesn’t have to be the leaders. It’s a collective thing.”
Of course, Scotland will try to exploit any weaknesses in Ireland’s game, with the lineout being one particular area where the home team will harbour realistic hopes of seizing an advantage.
“They had some shaky moments last week,” Hodge said of the Irish lineout against Wales. “It’s an area of our game that has been strong.
“They will have looked at it carefully this week, but so have we. It will be a big factor in this game.”
Having said that, the emphasis this week has rightly been on the Scots’ own deficiencies and how to overcome them, and the coaches certainly do not expect any favours from an Ireland team who, despite that loss to Wales, still look like the closest thing to a complete rugby package you can find in the Northern Hemisphere.
“Their kicking game has been talked about, they’re strong around the breakdown, very combative, their defence has been good,” Hodge continued. “They’re a very good all-round side and they don’t make many mistakes.”
Famously, the assistant coach was in a very similar position as a player to the one in which he finds himself in his new role. Back in 2000, Scotland had also lost their first four games and faced a daunting challenge in their final game at home to England. But – helped a little by some heavy rain – they claimed a remarkable 19-13 victory, with Hodge scoring all of their points.
Granted, it was a very different Scotland team which lifted the Calcutta Cup that day – above all, one with far more experience than their successors of 2015. They had gone into that first Six Nations as the champions from the previous year, and drastically underachieved in losing their first four games.
Even so, there are enough points in common between then and now to persuade Hodge that his team can buck the odds and pull off an improbable win. “There are similarities,” he said. “We are playing at home against a good team. That’s a good starting place, but we have to perform at our best to win the game. Ireland are a good side.
“The last time we played at home we didn’t perform. It’s a big thing for us to try and rectify that. If we can get our house in order, we’ll put them under pressure.”
If Scotland do win this afternoon following a defeat for Italy at home to Wales, Cotter’s team will at least have escaped the embarrassment of winning the Wooden Spoon. But the avoidance of that ignominious award will surely be no more than marginal motivation for a group of men who are determined to prove that they are getting better as a team by claiming a victory at last.
If they are to claim that victory, they may well need Ireland to have an off-day as well as putting in a superior performance themselves. But that is something they cannot factor into their planning. Instead, they have to concentrate on playing better and, above all, more consistently, than in their previous outings.
For one thing, that means keeping all 15 men on the pitch – something they managed to do at Twickenham for the first time in the Championship, cutting down on the penalty count at the same time. For another, it means stopping mauls at source – something they conspicuously failed to do against Italy, a failure for which they paid at the death with an award of a penalty try against them.
After being suspended for the Italian match, Russell had a quiet game against England. He needs to be more assertive this afternoon – although, of course, that depends in part on getting decent ball from his pack as well as on making good use of the possession he does get.
If the stand-off thrives, if the pack achieve parity, if the discipline holds, if Ireland are off the boil, then Scotland might, just might, get a win.
That may well be too many ifs, and too big a task, for Scotland at this stage of their growth. But, as long as they do what captain Greig Laidlaw promised at the start of the week and throw everything they have got into every minute of the match, they will at least have given themselves a fighting chance.