SCOTLAND assistant coach Duncan Hodge has warned the team that it will require a better performance than last time out against Italy to overcome Ireland this weekend, even though the Irish have been hit by injuries.
The former Scotland stand-off is now one of a small army of deputies working with the squad under Scott Johnson, Hodge moving from a part-time role as a goal-kicking coach to a more all-encompassing full-time position working on kicking strategies with Scotland, but also with Glasgow and Edinburgh and age-grade players.
With Johnson expected to announce a very similar line-up today to that which beat Italy 34-10 at Murrayfield, missing only tighthead prop Euan Murray, and Ireland making five changes to their starting XV, there is a mood of optimism around Scotland’s bid to claim two consecutive wins in the championship for what would be the first time since they last defeated Ireland at home, in 2001. That also came with two games at Murrayfield and Ireland following Italy, for those who like omens. But Hodge insisted that Ireland’s withdrawals were irrelevant, Simon Zebo, Johnny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, Cian Healy, Mike McCarthy and Chris Henry so far ruled out, and that the message within the camp was that success was only possible if the boys in blue put together a better 80-minute display than was the case against the Italians.
“Ireland have lost a couple of players,” he acknowledged, “but I don’t think they have suddenly become a bad side. There are still an extremely good team. They are weakened but that does not mean they are not a very, very good side, and, historically, they have been stronger than Italy, so we will have to play better.
“But that is our aim all the time, to improve each week. We’ve got good players and what we have been trying to focus on is working out what makes Test match players tick, and the fundamentals of getting the best out of those players. We have scored a few tries, which is great and does breed confidence, but what we’ve got to do now is back that up week to week.
“It’s no good when it only happens one week and not the next. That’s not what we’re after. Historically, we have been up and down. We have got to perform for two weeks in a row, at home, in front of our home crowd. We need to do a lot of the same stuff we did last time but we need to do it better.
“Every game is tougher than the last because, in terms of analysis, everyone keeps improving and we have got to keep improving too. If you stand still you are gone, so no matter the result, as a coaching team we should still be on a pretty level playing field, emphasising the good points and behaviour that we want to see and pointing out the bad ones.
“And who’s playing and who’s not playing for Ireland is not going to make a massive difference to us. They are going to be an extremely good side whoever is on the pitch on Sunday.”
There was a strong hint from the Ireland camp yesterday that they are considering replacing the injured inside centre Gordon D’Arcy with Luke Marshall, the uncapped 21-year-old from Ulster. He is a good playmaker and, with Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll either side of him, may give the Irish midfield a new threat, particularly in the expected kicking duel.
Hodge admitted that Ireland do pose strong kicking threats, with Connor Murray and O’Gara both capable of hanging high balls and former Gaelic footballer Rob Kearney a clear and present danger on the chase every time a ball goes into the sky.
It is still a hugely under-valued aspect of rugby union, where players, particularly centres, fail to recognise the potency of well-placed kicks the way rugby league players have grasped some time ago and work to improve those skills. Hodge has been working over the past year with all backs, and even some forwards, however, on varying kicks and the best way to counter-attack off kicks.
“In any game of rugby there will be a cross-section of different kinds of kicks. Depending on positions on the field it could be [Stuart] Hoggy or the wingers who are catching them. Historically, O’Gara, Sexton and Kearney have kicked high a lot of the time... and that’s part of the spectrum of rugby.
“But if you set your team up to play one way then you are limiting your options. We are playing against smart teams and smart coaches. If you only play one way you’re giving the opposition distinct advantages because they know what you’re going to do.”
What Hodge brings to the camp is an experience not only of standing out there on the Murrayfield turf, in front of a packed audience willing him to convert a chance into two or three points, but also of the effort that it takes to win in a Scotland jersey.
Scotland have beaten Ireland only twice in the Six Nations, famously in Croke Park in 2010 and, the last time at home, at Murrayfield in 2001, when the match was postponed until September due to the nationwide foot-and-mouth outbreak.
Asked to recount his memories of the great Celtic clash, he shook his head. “I don’t have terribly good ones. I was on the bench when we beat them in the September game and I was on the bench when O’Gara got his first cap, 2000 over there.
“So I don’t have particularly great memories of playing Ireland but to be honest in the last ten years, who does? And you can’t hide away from that either.
“That could change this weekend, but that depends on us. No-one else. We have to play well on Sunday.”