SCOTLAND head across the Irish Sea for the first time at the start of the RBS Six Nations Championship with another underdog triumph rearing large in the sights.
The Championship is teed up to be another close-run affair, the usual words of ‘momentum’ and ‘early win’ dominating the rhetoric. Scotland have been written off virtually everywhere and a special nervousness has fallen in Wales as they contemplate the possibility of a first hat-trick of consecutive Six Nations titles and outshining the legends of the 1970s.
But it remains too tight to call. The Welsh showed last year than an opening-day victory was not necessary to win the trophy if teams take points off each other, and I would bet now that the Six Nations table will alter again from week one to two to three, such is the competitiveness of the teams.
Ireland will fancy their chances, with two home games to start with, and some of their brethren are already looking to the meeting with Wales next weekend and the ‘grudge match’ scenario as Brian O’Driscoll, in his last tournament, seeks to prove Wales chief Warren Gatland wrong for dropping him from the third Test on the British and Irish Lions tour.
But can Scotland make an impression? The answer is yes. There may be much that points to Scotland being weaker than others in 2014, but also evidence that suggests Kelly Brown’s team could surprise. For a start, five of the last six meetings with Ireland have finished with the losing side inside a score of the winner, Scotland winning three (including the pre-World Cup match at Murrayfield in 2011) and the Irish three, as Ireland slipped off the Six Nations pace.
Four of Scotland’s last five meetings with England have also finished with England winning by less than a score, or drawing, and the last two matches with France have ended with only a score separating the teams, and those are the two opponents coming to Murrayfield this spring.
Most of these Scottish players have beaten Australia twice and lost by just eight points in November, had South Africa on the rack in the Republic with less than 20 minutes remaining in the summer, before the autumn humbling admittedly, and so, while the important statistic is that Scotland lost most of these games, what the recent past shows is that this squad are competitive with any side they face. Crucially, they have lacked two fundamental traits of winners: consistency in application, so shooting themselves in the foot too often with mistakes under pressure, and finishing ability. There are reasons, however, to believe that this championship could witness improvement in those two crucial areas. One imagines some of you are reading this and already harumphing, if we Scots harumph. ‘Here he goes, the big Six Nations build-up, hope springs eternal and all that’. It is easy to be pessimistic. Too easy after all we have been through. But the Grand Slam ‘84 programme screened on BBC Scotland this week was a timely reminder that sometimes, albeit very occasionally, it can fall Scotland’s way.
Ireland have built a strong squad around the experienced totems of skipper Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, with prop Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip in the back row, half-backs Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton and Rob Kearney providing a rich core of world-class talent. The two ‘O’s are great rugby figures, the kind that Irish rugby needed at the turn of the century, and, in inspiring Munster and Leinster to European success, and Ireland to three Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam, they should be afforded the freedom of Ireland for evermore.
But they are not the players they were. Both 35 this year, they do not have the legs to be as effective over 80 minutes as they once were, if their opponents have the wit and ability to test them for pace, mobility and lung capacity. Ireland also left their last match at the Aviva in tears, a first win over New Zealand being torn from their grasp by a last-minute try and even a draw snatched away cruelly by a retaken conversion. It was a fine performance to finish the year and, if they can improve on it, they could be unstoppable by any side in this tournament.
But if they are frustrated by the Scottish defence in the first half-hour – the forecast is for clear skies but, recalling big performances, the Scots should play as if the rain is teeming down – and cannot find a rhythm or score a try before half-time, they will feel a million miles from that. If Duncan Taylor and Alex Dunbar get between Luke Marshall and O’Driscoll, in their faces, in attack and defence, then watch the patience of O’Driscoll, the ultra competitor, being stretched. When that happens, he and Ireland are vulnerable.
Playing 80 minutes, getting 90 percent right, is all very well to talk about, but errors will be made and the momentum will swing back and forth. The result comes down to who makes the most of their periods on top.
It is a significant test for Scotland’s young middle core – David Denton, Ryan Wilson, Duncan Weir, Taylor and Dunbar – who are still acclimatising to the brain-melting speed and ferocity of Test rugby, but, with the front five putting in the work, Kelly Brown providing a lead in an appetising battle with Irish openside Chris Henry, Greig Laidlaw pulling strings and the back three poised to support, there is the potential for an explosive performance.
It is a big test for Weir, in particular, but the youngster has the potential to be the stand-off Scotland have been craving. He was told by Glasgow skipper Al Kellock at the start of the season that now was the time to grow up, ditch the ‘young lad with potential’ tag and dominate games.
Injury and Scotland’s debilitating two-team pro system mean he has not had the chance to do that regularly at Glasgow, and he may ultimately have to leave Glasgow to find that opportunity. But the Cambuslang boy, a role model for state schoolboys across Scotland, has a glorious opportunity tomorrow to take the next step, to rely on big ball-carriers inside and outside him, do what he does best and play with the conviction with which he first launched himself into the game. For, if he and Laidlaw can play with tempo and move the point of attack on the front foot, Ireland will become eminently beatable.
For both sides, the key is front-foot ball, making ground and building momentum. O’Connell has willing ball-carriers in wrecking ball Healy, and high-running Jamie Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony up front, and O’Driscoll has eager aides in skilful scrum-half Murray, fly-half Sexton, who can fire flat passes and kick with accuracy, an exciting young centre in Marshall, who sliced Scotland open at Murrayfield last season on more than one occasion, and a back three who love to pick up the ball and run like the wind.
But that is going forward. On the back foot, no-one looks good and Scotland have picked a side that has the ability to knock Ireland back in the tackle. A front five that is strong and powerful, with Hamilton’s strength helping Moray Low in the scrum, and a back row unit that blends good physique with an athleticism that says they can play all day, helped by two centres in Taylor and Dunbar who will take the game to Ireland and make yards.
If the defence remains tight and frustrates Ireland, and Scotland’s pack provides good possession, all eminently possible, then it comes down to the finishing skills. Ireland have more proven finishers, at club and Test level, but Scotland have their own nuggets.
Laidlaw is a world-class goal-kicker, and the return of Stuart Hogg and Matt Scott among a number of quality players expected to be released from the bench tomorrow, will improve the creativity and threat in attack.
Do not under-estimate the skills of Dunbar and Taylor either. They are more than midfield truckers. Scotland will miss Tim Visser, out for the championship, but this squad has a more potent attack than any in the autumn and on last summer’s tour.
The game needs South African referee Craig Joubert to be strong at the tackle in the face of the expected derision from the home support if he penalises O’Connell, O’Driscoll or O’Mahony for lying over ball and preventing release, as is their wont. If Joubert doesn’t move them, Scottish players must.
Scotland now have that physicality to match Ireland in what will be a pulsating, bruising battle of a Test match, and one Scotland can win. Ireland are heavily-backed favourites. That is when Scottish sides have a knack of producing a surprise.
RBS Six Nations Championship
At Aviva Stadium, tomorrow, kick-off 3pm
BBC 1, 2:30pm
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa)
15 Rob Kearney
14 Andrew Trimble
13 Brian O’Driscoll
12 Luke Marshall
11 David Kearney
10 Johnny Sexton
9 Conor Murray
1 Cian Healy
2 Rory Best
3 Mike Ross
4 Devin Toner
5 Paul O’Connell (captain)
6 Peter O’Mahony
7 Chris Henry
8 Jamie Heaslip
16 Jack McGrath
17 Sean Cronin18 Martin Moore
19 Dan Tuohy
20 Tommy O’Donnell
21 Isaac Boss
22 Paddy Jackson
23 Fergus McFadden
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Sean Maitland
13 Alex Dunbar
12 Duncan Taylor 11 Sean Lamont
10 Duncan Weir
9 Greig Laidlaw
1 Ryan Grant
2 Ross Ford
3 Moray Low
4 Tim Swinson
5 Jim Hamilton
6 Ryan Wilson
7 Kelly Brown (captain)
8 David Denton
16 Pat MacArthur
17 Alasdair Dickinson
18 Geoff Cross
19 Richie Gray
20 Johnnie Beattie
21 Chris Cusiter
22 Matt Scott
23 Max Evans
MATCH TRIVIA AND SIX NATIONS BETTING LATEST
• IRELAND captain Brian O’Driscoll will set a new all-time caps record of 129 on Sunday, surpassing Ronan O’Gara’s tally of 128.
• Fly-half Johnny Sexton is just eight points away from moving third on Ireland’s all-time points-scoring charts.
• Ireland have lost their last four RBS Six Nations matches but have never lost five in a row in the 14 years of the six-country competition format.
• Scotland have won just two of their past eight Test matches, against Italy and Japan.
• Scotland’s 23-20 win over Ireland at Croke Park in 2010 is their sole Six Nations away victory in their last 17 tournament matches on the road.
• Ireland have won just one of their last five fixtures at the Aviva Stadium.
• Ireland have only lost one Six Nations round-one match since 2004, against Wales in 2012.
• Scotland’s win in 2010 is their only one in Dublin since 1998.
• Ireland full-back Rob Kearney will win his 50th cap against the Scots, the 27-year-old Leinster flyer hitting the milestone after his 2006 debut.
• Scotland will field four Six Nations debutants: lock Tim Swinson, centres Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor and flanker Ryan Wilson.
REIGNING champions Wales are 2-1 complete a hat-trick of Six Nations titles according to Ladbrokes. Warren Gatland’s side head into the tournament as the favourites and are already being heavily backed for the Grand Slam (6-1), whilst England and France share odds of 3-1 or it’s an 11-2 chance Ireland muscle in on glory. Scotland are 50-1 to triumph in the championship, with Italy at 250-1.
Punters are expecting George North’s fine form to continue and take home the top tournament tryscorer title at 7-1, but he faces tough competition from 6-1 favourite Alex Cuthbert.
At 1-25, Wales look set to ease past Italy (12-1) in their opening match on Saturday, but the same can not be said for England, who head into their game against France (4-7) as the 6-4 underdogs. Ireland are fancied at 1-7 against Scotland (5-1).
In the handicap betting at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow, Scotland with 12 points of a start, can be backed at evens, the same price Ireland and 16-1 the handicap draw (Ireland to win by exactly 12 points).
England are rated 9-4 to win the Triple Crown, with Ireland at 4-1, Wales 9-2, Scotland 40-1.