THERE is a fresh air of optimism encircling Murrayfield this weekend as Scotland host Ireland for the 65th occasion bidding to end the longest wait for a home Six Nations victory.
Scotland’s win over the Irish at Croke Park in 2010 was the sole championship success against the old Celtic rivals since the last Murrayfield triumph in 2001, which even had a strange feel coming in a tournament game delayed until September due to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth. Scotland have secured home wins against England, France, Wales and Italy in the championship in the past ten years, but not the Irish, despite very close-run things and World Cup warm-up victories.
It is no quirk of rugby fate. With the wonderfully-skilled Brian O’Driscoll at its apex, Irish rugby entered a golden era at the turn of the millennium and splashed a great vibrancy and colour across the northern hemisphere game in the decade and more since. Not since the great Mike Gibson and Jackie Kyle has Irish rugby had such back-line brilliance and players rose to the challenge and the sport in Ireland was galvanised by the drive for new success.
But with O’Driscoll staring at his last few months as a player, the Munster talismen Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and Donncha O’Callaghan in the twilight of their careers and young talents being thrust into the limelight without the same warm blanket of experience around them, there are signs that Ireland’s golden era may be dimming.
They started this championship with a phenomenal first half against Wales in Cardiff, the Simon Zebo heel-flick en route to a fine try an example of their flair, but fell off the pace against a Welsh revival Scots know plenty about, and then struggled to find a rhythm in a Lansdowne mud-wrestle and defeat to England.
Any side would miss the likes of O’Connell, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris, ruled out before the championship kicked off, and now they face Scotland with Zebo, Jonny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, Mike McCarthy and Cian Heaslip, and new caps Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall in important roles.
So, history may be against Scotland but, with the hosts having to make only change to their side - Geoff Cross in for Euan Murray -coming off a win and topping the Six Nations table for tries scored, their confidence is rising.
But how much of all that will be relevant when the first whistle blows tomorrow? None of it, I would wager.
This Irish team is a skilled one and what is relevant is how much better Scotland can be at controlling the ball against one of the best in the tournament in the crucial work at the breakdown, where possession is contested and won and lost most often in the modern game. Improvement here laid the foundations for Scotland’s win against Italy, but Scotland captain Kelly Brown knows his side face a more searching examination tomorrow.
He said: “We sat down right at the start of the championship and spoke about four key areas we needed to get right. One of them was the tackle contest and we’ve been working hard on all of these things. It’s something that we work on in every single session. We have focused almost entirely on these four areas and, against England, we probably lost all four, and against Italy we probably won all four.
“So it’s about doing it again and again and again and again, every day, that individuals’ skills improve and, as a consequence, we’re stronger as a team.”
Asked to expand on the other areas, he smiled, adding: “I will leave it at that.”
But it is less about the specifics. Rugby is rugby and the key areas remain the same game to game. It is more about how coaches Scott Johnson, Dean Ryan and Matt Taylor, specifically, are charging the players to grasp clear, simple basics around each element of the game that is instructive. It is a basic tenet of good coaching, but there is a sense that Johnson has managed to clear players’ heads of unnecessary thinking and brought a clarity of purpose to their work.
The game starts with the pack doing their job and with Geoff Cross now a more experienced and undoubtedly strong replacement for Euan Murray, the Scottish front five are capable of outplaying their opposite quintet, but they have to in the scrum and lineout to begin to build on the momentum of the Italy win.
That means Ryan Grant, Ross Ford and Cross sticking tightly as a unit, Ford finding his men from the touchline and Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray and Rob Harley combining well to win ball and disrupt Irish throws.
The key areas Brown spoke of will all relate to winning ball. Scotland’s restarts have been hugely inconsistent here in the past. With the aforementioned big forwards added to sizeable backs Sean Lamont and Tim Visser and the skilful Sean Maitland, restarts offer great opportunities for Scotland to grip the ball and the match.
And then there is the kicking game, which has become a key area in Test matches with Ireland, whether they have O’Gara or Sexton at fly-half, or now Paddy Jackson. Ireland full-back Rob Kearney can return kicks with interest and chase them down, while Craig Gilroy and Keith Earls are not hugely experienced Test wings and both prefer to run ball back.
Scotland have good kickers in half-backs Greig Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson, and full-back Stuart Hogg, and, similarly, wings who prefer ball in hand, but Scotland’s ability to chase Laidlaw’s box-kicks and Jackson’s Garryowens and pressure Ireland into mistakes will be significant to the outcome too.
Paddy Jackson may be new to the Six Nations, but he is a clear talent, a player who likes to attack the line and can find space with kicks, and his Ulster teammate Luke Marshall, as a former fly-half, is similarly capable of varying the attack with hand and boot. That is probably why coach Declan Kidney went for the pair together, because both offer threats. Scotland would have preferred the more prosaic O’Gara. The Scots did well against Italy, but the Italians were more predictable than the Irish will be, easier to line up in defence and to attack on the front foot, and so Scotland’s defence will be tested every time the visitors are on the ball, their footwork, support running and angles more advanced than most of the Italian players.
Defence is a key area, because it is both about denying opposition chances and stealing back the ball, and, looking to emulate the Irish masters of the breakdown and ‘choke tackle’, Scotland will seek to dominate the collisions tomorrow.
And if the basics are good and the teams even well-matched, fresh confidence will course through Murrayfield from the belief that, in Visser, Hogg and Maitland, Scotland have a trio of attackers to outwit any defence. To give them a platform to influence the game, Scotland must maintain a momentum to their play and batter green jerseys off the rucks, and ensure English referee Wayne Barnes deals with infamous Irish slowing tactics – infamous because they have been better at most at it.
If Scotland are to turn a corner at Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon and win back-to-back championship matches for the first time since that Irish win in 2010 eventually followed a defeat of Italy, they need to be as aggressive as we expect them to be against the All Blacks, as dynamic and powerful at taking the game to Ireland and clearing rucks, as accurate at recycling ball, off-loading and kicking and as composed as one has come to expect of the Irish in the heat of battle. Bring that to the party and the weaknesses in this Irish team, the pressure on the new caps, the lack of dynamism in the front five, thinning of leaders across the team and drop in confidence after the English loss will start to become relevant.
Fail to produce that and, even without key men, Ireland have the confidence, experience and skills to use Scotland as a platform back to winning ways.
They have been here before and won even when below-par, and will believe that they can do it again. Changing the course of history is rarely easy.