Scotland players will give everything they have when they take to the field at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday
Robert Louis Stevenson may have reconsidered his famous “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” line if he ever had to endure the endless build-up to a Rugby World Cup.
The afterglow of Glasgow’s historic Guinness Pro12 triumph lingered into June but pretty soon thoughts turned to the global extravaganza in England. Then you realised it was still the best part of four months away – nearly a full third of the year. We may not all have been up French mountains with commandos and sweating it out to the point of nausea on sun-baked training fields but, as much as the players, we are all surely now at the stage where we want to see a bit of rugby and feel, finally, that the tournament is around the corner rather than a dot on the horizon.
On Saturday evening at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Scotland will finally take to the pitch for the first of four warm-up games but there will be no leisurely easing back into the swing of things with Six Nations champions Ireland the opposition.
Head coach Vern Cotter has been working with a training squad of around 50 players over the past two months but is expected to tell the squad tomorrow who will be involved at the weekend. Glasgow hooker Fraser Brown is hoping to be among that number as a thirst for action builds in the camp following weeks of intense training.
“I think it’s always strange in pre-season,” said the 26-year-old. “You get to the end of the season and everyone is looking forward to not having to play rugby for two months, and there’s always a bit of excitement when you go into the first couple of days of pre-season. Then you get about four days in and the guys are like ‘No, I just want there to be a game at the end of the week’.
“The last six to eight weeks have been really hard work, especially when we’ve done five days straight and got Saturday and Sunday off. So it’s been really hard, specially on the body.
“But it’s nice to go back on Monday into a more structured, Test-match week and having a game at the end of it, against Ireland who are Six Nations champions. The danger building up to the World Cup is that everyone views these four games as ‘warm-up games’. For us they’re still Test matches with all the same pressures.”
Ireland, who already have yesterday’s match against Wales in the bank heading into this week, are many people’s dark horses for the tournament and Brown is expecting it to be a testing reintroduction to matchplay.
The former under-20 skipper said: “It’s a bit like when you’re at training and they say ‘right, we’re going to do this drill at 70 per cent’ and everyone’s trying to work out what their 70 per cent is and you run into someone and they absolutely destroy you. ‘Oh, that’s not 70 per cent’.
“You can’t go into the warm-up games thinking ‘I don’t want to get injured’. Everyone always says it, but you can’t. You have to go in looking to play as hard as every other game you play in a season.”
Of course, Scotland are picking up where they left off in many ways as Ireland were their last opponents on a somewhat chastening afternoon at BT Murrayfield. As Ireland skipper Paul O’Connell’s men surged to the title at a 40-10 canter, the Scots were condemned to yet another Wooden Spoon in what was comfortably their worst performance of a campaign which contained some bright spots amidst the gloom of five consecutive losses.
Brown came off the bench that day for his eighth cap, all of which have been won as a replacement, and the prospect of facing the green jerseys again reawakens some frustrating memories.
“I came on for about 25, 26 minutes. It was a funny day,” recalled Brown. “The coaches told us that in the [first four games] there was a six-point swing between not winning any of them and going for the Grand Slam.
“But then going into that last game, I thought we were very close to the way we’d been playing, but mentally we just regressed a little bit from where we were against France and Wales. We didn’t play well in the Ireland game, but when you go back and review it there’s maybe ten minutes in each half where the game really got away from us.
“It shows how good a team we are, that when we really weren’t playing well we could still compete and frustrate teams. But it’s that ten minutes where we switched off – that’s where we have to be better The best teams in the world don’t concede ten or 15 points when they’re not playing well.
“The periods of the game when you’re not playing at 100 per cent – that’s when you’ve got to be able to keep other teams out. That’s what was frustrating about the Ireland game. It was perceived to be a lot worse than it actually was. But our standards have to be better when we’re not playing well, so we don’t allow teams to capitalise on that.
“On Saturday, it will be interesting to see what happens with team selections, I am not really sure what Ireland or we will do and it will be interesting to see how both teams approach it.”
Brown was part of the Under-20 World Cup in Japan alongside the likes of Richie Gray, Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne and Henry Pyrgos, but his road to the senior squad has been a more tortuous one than most. After starting his pro career with Edinburgh, a nightmare run of shoulder and neck injuries stalled his progress. When the last World Cup took place he was working on the family farm near Biggar, before a stint with Heriot’s got him back in the groove and a contract with Glasgow in 2013 was the reward.
He has rebuilt his career admirably and is justified in having high hopes.
Brown is now viewed as the number two No 2, so to speak, behind the venerable Ross Ford and, with just three hookers in the training squad – Edinburgh’s Stuart McInally completing the trio – the competition is not as dog-eat-dog as other positions. With three hookers almost certain to be named in the final 31 there is some comfort in the fact that a place in England is in reach. But Brown insists there is no complacency.
“It’s odd knowing there are three of us in the squad and in all likeliness three of us are going to go,” he said. “It doesn’t mean competition is any less in training because there’s still three of you battling for two spots. It shifts the emphasis slightly in that in other positions people might be battling to get into the 31, the three of us know we’re probably going to be in that barring injury, but we’re now really battling for one spot because everyone wants to start.
“Fordy rightfully is starting as the incumbent but my job and Rambo’s [McInally] is to put as much pressure on the coaches to try and force them to start me in the warm-up games and then going into the World Cup.”
Sat 15 Aug: Ireland (A) Dublin, 5pm
Sat 22 Aug: Italy (A) Turin, 7pm
Sat 29 Aug: Italy (H) BT Murrayfield, 3pm
Sat 4 Sep: France (A) Paris, 8pm
Mon 31 Aug: Deadline for final squads to be named
Fri 18 Sep: Tournament starts - England v Fiji, Twickenham, 8pm
Wed 23 Sep: Japan v Scotland, Gloucester, 2.30pm
Sun 27 Sep: Scotland v USA, Leeds, 2.30pm
Sat 3 Oct: South Africa v Scotland, Newcastle, 4.45pm
Sat 10 Oct: Samoa v Scotland, Newcastle, 2.30pm