THE presence of British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland on Murrayfield’s back pitches this week may have provided players with an extra motivational boost, but, according to Scotland skipper Kelly Brown, it will have no bearing on tomorrow’s RBS Six Nations clash with Ireland.
There is little doubt that among some of the calls Gatland still has to make in his 35-man tour squad for Australia this summer will feature the names of several Scotsmen and Irishmen. Is Conor Murray or Greig Laidlaw the better choice at scrum-half? Is Ryan Grant true Test-match quality, can Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray dominate against proven locks and can the Scottish back row display the blend of their talents in a winning performance against this Irish trio?
There are more similarly intriguing questions around the threequarters as, for Gatland, this game will answer some questions about new players in a Scotland line-up that the Kiwi often used to write off as flattering to deceive. His evidence was their frequent ability to look good in one-off games, but fail to back up wins when the pressure was on, ie: in the white-hot arena of the Six Nations.
Brown has met Gatland before and knew he was coming this week as part of the coach’s plan to size up the players in each of the four home unions in training as well as in games. Watching them in training, Gatland believes, provides a better insight into how they might rise to the unique demands of a Lions tour. But the word has gone out from on high in Murrayfield that everyone should keep mum on the subject of the Lions, Gatland’s visit having been kept quiet and no photographers allowed into training when he was there, so as to keep the focus purely on Scotland v Ireland and the demands that this Test match brings.
“I know that Warren has been involved with the home unions over the Six Nations,” said Brown, “so all of the boys were expecting him to be with us at some stage. It was good to see him but all of the guys are entirely focused on Scotland and the Ireland match on Sunday. I can’t speak for all of the players, but I know that I can only focus on what I can do and that is entirely what I’ve been doing, train as well as I can so, as Scotland, we can be successful and anything else after that is not my call.
“Everyone knows that there is a Lions tour in the summer. We don’t need to see the head coach to know that. But I’m just focusing entirely on my game and us to make sure we’re as successful as possible.”
Got the message. He knows, as does every player, that when it comes to discussing the final make-up of the Lions squad in April that we are likely to hark back to this match as having determined several choices. But, before then, victories are needed and Brown simply wants to remember what it feels like to beat Ireland, and in less painful fashion than was the case the last time he did, at Croke Park in 2010.
“My main memory of that game was that I was on and off and on and off because I had a badly broken nose and was trying to stop the bleeding,” the captain recalled. “I’m not entirely sure who it was [that broke it], but it wasn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last time either, as you can possibly tell from the shape of it right now.
“That was a very special day and all of the guys are desperate to make sure that we have more days like that, not just for us as a squad, but for the nation. There’s no doubt that the win over Italy has really given us a lift, but now the challenge is making sure that we back it up. We’ve not won back-to-back matches in the Six Nations since I don’t know when , and so, yes, it was great but we need to move on and improve because, if we don’t, then that game will become a flash in the pan.
“If you look at Ireland in the autumn and in their first match in his championship, they were looking very strong, and Scotland haven’t won against Ireland in the Six Nations here for years, so all the talk of their injuries doesn’t worry us. We need to play the team that’s out there and we’ve looked at their squad and it’s going to be a very tough ask on Sunday.”
Brown was an hour late for his traditional Friday media conference, and any journalist wishing to take issue with his tardiness was swiftly pointed in the direction of forwards coach Dean Ryan, the reason being an extended forwards session that merely underlined the attention to detail the former England back row is demanding of his new charges.
“We need to make sure, as a forward pack and as a team, that we’re in the best possible situation to play well on Sunday and that’s what we’re doing,” said Brown.
“There’s no doubt that we enjoy playing at home and, over the last wee while, the Scottish fans have been absolutely superb. But, in saying that, this is just another game and as soon as we cross the line it’s 15 against 15 and we need to make sure that we front up and bring our ‘A’ game every single time we play for Scotland.
“If you look at the Six Nations table we’re in the mix, but we’ve only won one game so we’re looking at Sunday and making sure that we are at a higher level than we were against Italy. If we can do that, we’ll be in the game.
“We’re happy to have won now, and scored six tries, but it’s about making sure that all aspects of our game are working well. If we can do that, then we can challenge anybody.”
With that, the dark eyebrows knitted together and he took his leave to return to the singular focus of claiming that rare second Six Nations win on the trot.