THERE are a few reasons, when it comes to Scotland’s chances in Dublin, to temper the traditional pre-season optimism with a cold shower of realism.
None more so than the midfield mismatch which, if it was a boxing match, would be stopped before it started.
In the blue corner we have No.10 Duncan Weir, who might be Scotland’s first pick but looks like the second-string stand-off at Glasgow Warriors after starting just one Heineken match compared to five for Ruaridh Jackson. Outside Weir, Scotland field a brand new centre partnership of Duncan Taylor and Alex Dunbar. They have rarely met and never played together at any level. They share a total of nine caps and one try.
In the green corner is the best stand-off in Europe, Jonny Sexton – try-scoring hero for the Lions in that third, decisive Sydney Test. Ulster’s Luke Marshall got the nod at No.12 after ripping Scotland open 12 months ago at Murrayfield, in what was his maiden Test outing. He made three clean line breaks, which is three more than the whole Scotland team managed. Outside him at No.13 is the legend that is Brian O’Driscoll and, if he may have lost a half yard of pace in attack, he remains one of the best defensive midfielders in world rugby.
O’Driscoll alone has more than twice the number of Test tries than the entire Scotland backline can claim and he will make his 129th appearance for Ireland today, breaking Ronan O’Gara’s record.
All of which is enough to make you pause for thought . . . unless you are Duncan Taylor.
“Not really, I don’t think it’s something we think too much about,” says the 24-year-old Saracens back. “It’s just the next game we are playing and there happens to be a world-class centre there. There are world-class centres in every international side, so it’s just something that you come up against all the time.
“It’s going to be a massive physical battle and they are a very fast-paced team. They can run the ball from just about anywhere, so it will be a physical test.
“I try to be physical in attack and defence, to bring an offloading game and also a running game and try to mix things up. It’s not really my place to say too much about my strengths, I don’t really want to go for that, physical mainly.”
Taylor has already amassed six Test caps, almost by stealth, and, although he started Scotland’s last two outings, against South Africa and Australia in the autumn, this will be his first nervy experience of Six Nations rugby.
Born in England, there was never any chance of Taylor going down that route to international rugby since his parents drummed his heritage into him from an early age. His father’s job meant that the family moved around a lot. England, Scotland, England, Scotland, England, Australia, England –including some mini-rugby at Edinburgh’s Royal High, where it all began. He also had a stint at Olney RFC before the Championship’s Bedford Blues offered him a contract straight out of school. Saracens have an arrangement with Bedford to get first refusal on their talented players and they picked Taylor up two years ago. He hasn’t looked back since.
Taylor has started four games and made two appearances off the bench in both the Aviva Premiership and the Heineken Cup, which is a lot more rugby than his rival for the Scotland No.12 shirt, Edinburgh’s Matt Scott, who has started just three matches all season after a run of bad luck that included breaking a bone in his hand in the autumn Test against Japan.
You fancy Taylor will need the performance of his life if he is to keep Scott bench-bound for next Saturday’s Calcutta Cup but at least the centre has form and fortune on his side. He has been in good nick for Sarries, winning the man of the match award against Harlequins in the Aviva Premiership. He also scored a cracking try with his first-ever touch of the ball in Scotland’s colours. That try came last season as Scotland A team beat the England Saxons south of the Border for the first time. Taylor was on the wing but has no intention of moving back there. He says: “I never really felt I was a winger or full-back but it was a position I could play and it didn’t really bother me. If I was playing I was happy. At the moment, I see myself more as a 12 or 13. I am not sure how many games I have played but the majority of games I have started have been at 12.”
Momentum is everything in the Six Nations. Teams need a result in the opening two games to take some confidence into the first fallow weekend, which can seem an awful long time if you are on zero from two and staring at a whitewash.
“It’s important to get off to a good start in the competition,” Taylor concurs. “It’s international rugby and you go out to win every game so it’s the same as the autumn. Winning is the ideal scenario in the first game.”
Victory in that first game has eluded Scotland since 2006, while Ireland have won their opener in nine of the last ten years.
“It’s not really something you think about again,” responds Taylor. “We go out to try to win every game, whether it’s the first or the last.”
Not really thinking about the scale of the task ahead may be the only sensible course of action for the Six Nations debutant.