THE DOUBTS over the future of domestic rugby across Europe tucked away in the freezer for a bit, it is time to open the door to another Six Nations Championship and what I still believe is the highlight of the rugby world’s calendar.
Very few people seem to be able to agree on who will emerge as champions, and while there is little talk about Scotland some shrewd observers are backing us as a dark horse. We expect it to be tight once again. Last year there was only one Grand Slam contender after two weeks, England, and while we expect a weekend of fireworks and a race to see who might settle into a rhythm first, remember that the 2013 champion, Wales, actually lost their opening match.
It is strange now to be looking back as a “pundit”; no longer a player of any sort. This week was always one of incredible excitement, anticipation and expectation when I was in the Scotland camp. It was underpinned by an attitude of “nobody can change history but you have the chance to shape the future”.
Today the guys will run out on to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin to put the final building blocks in place at Kelly Brown’s captain’s run. Everyone will know the strategies ahead of tomorrow, so the session will simply rehearse the detail around scrum and lineout, first-phase strikes, phase play, exit strategies and defensive shape.
From there it will be back to the team hotel to do what I’d imagine most of you will be doing – watching Wales versus Italy and “Le Crunch” in Paris, France v England. Without losing focus on Sunday’s game, being the last game of the weekend does allow you to see how the other teams have fared and with only six days to the next match, against England, that helps.
So, where do we draw optimism from today? If you perform you give yourself a chance. Scott Johnson hasn’t spoken about winning. He speaks about performance – controllables. Sometimes things go against you but if you can be accountable for a good performance you’ll give yourself a sniff. The bounce of the ball or a ref’s call can be the difference between winning and losing – small margins. Just ask Ireland after their All Blacks loss in November.
Some people have talked about Scotland “over-achieving” in 2013. I don’t think so. Four tries against Italy was a real positive, but equally beautiful was the win versus Ireland, built on a defensive line that “you’d need dynamite from the Highland Light Infantry to penetrate” (thanks Papa for that line).
Johnson will have kept things simple for Sunday. The attack game in the opener is about strong foundations, good scrum and lineout, winning the gain-line battle and generating front-foot ball.
“Tempo” is the buzz word of the week, but what does that mean? Essentially, if you can obtain good ball from phase one and two the game becomes easier to control. There is an intent shown by Scotland’s midfield selection with huge responsibility on both Duncan Taylor and Alex Dunbar. They are facing a youngster in Luke Marshall and a legend in Brian O’Driscoll, but neither is known as a destructive tackler.
If we can get over the gain-line, Greig Laidlaw – a really smart operator – will have the opportunity to bring power runners David Denton, Ryan Wilson and Ross Ford into the game, and with a back three of Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont capable of matching any of their opponents in this tournament, we have something to get excited about.
The big threat tomorrow is the Irish ability to suffocate attacks, whether it is with their choke tackle or their breakdown work, which can lead to slow ball misery for a scrum-half.
Greig is a key man for us. He has to boss the big guys in front of him to provide quality ball from set-piece and marshall the breakdown to ensure he gets the ball he needs, quick and on the front foot. Some criticise his attacking, but nowadays a scrum-half has to pick his moment, and he’s always been good at picking the time to have a go.
You have to use the big attackers to carry, carry, carry and then when their eye focuses on repeated onslaughts, the opportunity can open for him. His tactical kicking in attack and defence is very good, and there will be times when field position and building pressure is crucial. Expect Stuart Hogg to launch a few rockets with his right boot, capable of going 22 to 22 consistently, and Duncy Weir, who strikes a sweet ball, to take charge of clearing lines when the pressure is on. Greig’s goal-kicking is also so reliable and can give everyone huge confidence and belief.
Our win last year was built on the defensive display. Matt Taylor, the defence coach, will have been disappointed with elements of the autumn and I expect the battle of the breakdown to be a huge focus against Ireland because we must disrupt their ball.
Joe Schmidt is admired as one of best attack coaches in world, but whispers from within Ireland suggest that those outside Dublin sense some “unfair” favouritism of Leinster. He will have doused a bit of that, perhaps, by picking Marshall and Andrew Trimble.
They have experienced figures in the team who have shown their capabilities in Europe and on the Test stage and they will feel they’re in a great place, so we have to put early doubts in their head.
I have to say I like the look of the Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray. In my view, he was the most improved player on the Lions tour and had there been a fourth Test I think he would have started. But, for all that, I remember Croke Park, 2010, and how Dan Parks held his nerve in the final minutes as it seemed that the whole of Ireland was screaming at him to miss. That was a strong Ireland team, a Scottish side of which little was expected, and we won. It can be done.
And I tell you one leading Irish sportsman who fears it could happen again – Rory McIlroy. Having been based in Dubai for the last few months, I popped into the Emirates Golf Club on Monday for a coffee with the general manager and found myself chatting with Rory over the last six holes as he practised on Monday.
He loves his rugby, is a big Ulster supporter, and said he was nervous for this weekend…not the golf but for the Aviva. He’s got too many bad memories of the Scots, he said. I told him to go on and win this weekend and I’d catch him for a beer in the Emirates clubhouse afterwards to watch the game and toast a McIlroy/Scotland double.
He chuckled, but as I write this he leads the field by a shot so he is on his way to upholding his end of the deal. Here’s hoping the boys in blue do the same.