WHATEVER happens at BT Murrayfield on Saturday, this will have to go down as a disappointing Six Nations Championship for Scotland. They went into the tournament in promising form after the Autumn Tests, only to lose to France, Wales, England and worst of all Italy.
But, while the general verdict on the campaign has to be a negative one, the team know that a win against Ireland on Saturday would at least give them some hope for the future. They have rightly sought to highlight the positive aspects of their play in those previous games, and feel that a victory will vindicate that self-belief, as well as going some way towards repaying their supporters.
“If we can beat a good team like Ireland, it gives us confidence and shows that our improvements have led to something in the end,” captain Greig Laidlaw said yesterday. “We want to win for the jersey, win for ourselves, win for the fans, because they’ve been brilliant throughout a tough campaign.
“We know it’s not going to be easy and we’re not taking Ireland lightly. They can still win the championship and they’ll be coming here to put in a big shift as well.
“We can hugely feed off our own fans. For us this weekend we want to go out there and give the fans something for their continued support. We really want to do that and send them off on a good note, because it’s been a tough championship for the players and fans alike.
“We’re all focused now and we’re desperate to win the game. The Scotland boys will put in everything they’ve got to try and get something out of this Six Nations.
“Nobody wants to be in the team that’s failed to pick up any wins. It wouldn’t really matter who we’re playing this weekend – we need to get our part right and concentrate on our game. If we do that, we believe as a squad we’ll put ourselves in a good position to win the game.
“It’s tough losing. You tend to go home and you can’t let it go. It’s tough.
“But we’ve got an opportunity this weekend to finish on a high. If we can win this one, it gives us a bit of a sigh of relief going into the pre-World-Cup games. If you lose this one it’s a long time before you then play for Scotland again.
“That’s the worst situation to be in. At least we’ve only had a week to try and rectify some of the problems and give everybody the boost that they want.”
Inevitably, minds and bodies are weary by this stage of such a physically punishing tournament, and a team that has yet to win a single match can find it harder to motivate itself than more successful sides. But Laidlaw is sure that he and the other senior players know how to ensure that morale within the squad remains high.
“It starts in training. And we had a great session again today. It’s about players making sure they know Ireland inside out,” he added. “When you’re under a little bit of pressure, players can go quiet. For me it’s got to be the opposite. I’ll be encouraging the players to keep coming out their shells, keep expressing themselves, keep attacking. If we do that, that’ll put us in the best position to win the game.
“I’ve almost been saying the same things most weeks, unfortunately. But there are huge positives in there, and I think everybody can see some of the play is brilliant and some of the confidence the players get from that. I know the English boys and the Welsh boys in particular think that we’re now a threat and a much better team than we were.”
Four countries are still in with a chance of winning the title, although France’s remote hopes will be extinguished if any of the other three win on Saturday. For Wales and England as well as Ireland, the aim is to secure a big enough victory at the weekend to ensure they top the table on points differential even if the other two nations also win.
England have the advantage of playing last on Saturday, when their home match against France kicks off at 5pm. Wales visit Italy in the 12.30pm kick-off, while the Scotland-Ireland game begins at 2.30pm.
Wales at least have a target to attack in their game, as their points difference of 12 is inferior to the other two – England are 37 to the good, Ireland 33. Knowing that they have to go for a sizeable win will at least make it simpler for them to choose their tactics.
But the Irish will have a trickier task, as – unless they get off to a flying start against Scotland – they may have to take a more measured approach to trying to build up a lead. That could conceivably induce a certain amount of nervousness in their play – although Laidlaw and colleagues will certainly not take that for granted.
“I don’t know who’s under more pressure,” the scrum-half said. “There’s always pressure when you put the Scotland jersey on, as there should be.
“We’re just worrying about ourselves this weekend – we can’t worry about Ireland’s situation. If we do that we’ll definitely take our eye off the ball.”
Hooker Ross Ford also emphasised the importance of remaining upbeat despite that run of four defeats, but said that the squad also had to be unsparingly honest in assessing where and why they have fallen short in those lost matches.
“We need to be realistic, look at where we aren’t good enough and try to improve,” he said. “We need to stay positive going into the games – and we have scored tries during this Six Nations and managed to capitalise on things. It’s a huge positive to know we’ve pushed good teams close.
“There’s no point getting yourself down. It doesn’t get you anywhere on the pitch. It’s about staying positive and getting right back out and going after teams.
“It would be great to finish the campaign on a high, especially at home. It’s a World Cup year, so it would be a very positive note to end the Six Nations on.
“It would be a reward for all the hard work the coaches and the players have put in. A lot of the public can see the hard work. We want to see them enjoying the victories along with us. We want to win for them.”
As the Scotland management remain hopeful that all the players who were injured against England will be available for selection this weekend, head coach Vern Cotter might be able, if he chooses, to select the same 23 players who were on duty against England.
The full squad has trained, and although some have not taken full contact, no-one extra has yet been called into the squad.
Matt Scott, replaced by Greig Tonks for the second half at Twickenham, is still the biggest doubt. With Alex Dunbar already out after injuring a cruciate ligament in training last week, the loss of Scott would leave Cotter short of partners for Mark Bennett at centre. The team is due to be announced tomorrow.
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