SCOTLAND headed indoors for their Six Nations preparation in an effort to beat the weather and ensure a victorious start to the tournament for the first time in eight years.
The last time Scotland opened the championship with a win was in 2006, when the Frank Hadden era started with fine victories over France in the first game and England in the next home game. The Scots also won in Italy during the first and last Six Nations tournament in which they won three games.
Duncan Hodge was a key figure at the beginning of the Six Nations, steering Scotland to victory over England in 2000, but he suffered enough disappointment to know such great days are rare and to be treasured.
He has also been involved as a coach with the national squad for nearly six years and, in that time, has not experienced an opening day win. He is hopeful one might come in Dublin on Sunday, but acknowledged that the team will have to start the game better than has been the case in recent times.
Hodge said: “We expect them to come at us from the start on Sunday, of course, but we will hopefully be coming at them as well. We’re not going over there to soak up Ireland. We want to impose our game on them. That’s really important. We have some great players and we have to stand up and be counted and I don’t think there’s any doubt about that in our minds.
“The first 20 minutes, the first half-hour is going to be important, as it is in any Test match, and the start to the championship is going to be huge.”
As they trained inside Murrayfield Stadium yesterday before spending around 90 minutes on the back pitches with the rain pelting down, Hodge said: “I’m no John Kettley [former BBC weatherman], but it [the weather] has been a big consideration over the last ten days.
“This time last year we were walking off training sessions [unfinished due to snow and ice] before the first game against England. We have done some more indoor stuff this time, guarded against the bad weather and, hopefully, have got through a lot of stuff.
“The weather, tactically, is an issue. We don’t know what it’s going to be like on Sunday but we’d like to think that we’ll have done enough between now and then to cope, and are flexible enough to adapt to what’s thrown at us.”
The Six Nations is a tough tournament but the Scots have a particularly hard start. They first travel to face an Ireland side looking to improve on their last performance, when they came within a minute of beating New Zealand, and then Scotland host England at Murrayfield on the following Saturday.
“The six-day turnaround is not ideal,” added kicking coach Hodge, “but we’ve been dealt that card before and other teams have been dealt it. It’s up to the team and us to manage that. We’ve got to be very careful about what we do this week as well. It’s all about Sunday. Get that out of the way and then we can deal with the next game.
“But we’re looking ultimately past Sunday. Historically, we haven’t started championships well for the last four or five years so I think we’d be stupid to look any further than this Sunday.
“That is our focus, absolutely. Ireland are a very good side, their provincial teams have been going really well and we know what we’re in for and have to prepare accordingly.”
Ireland have dominated this fixture over the past 15 years, winning 11 times to Scotland’s three, but it is Scott Johnson’s side who are Centenary Quaich holders after a bizarre game at Murrayfield last season when Scotland seemed set to be run off the field but kept their composure with sterling last-ditch defence and managed to emerge victorious despite having just 20 per cent of possession.
Now 39, with experience of 26 Test matches behind him, Hodge smiled as he insisted that the coaches were naturally demanding a better performance from the side this time, telling the players that a poor start will be fatal in the Aviva Stadium but admitting that he would be quite happy if the end result proved to be the same.
“It was a strange game. It might have been quite similar to when we beat them over there four years ago [at Croke Park] in that the first half-hour they had a lot of the ball and possession but we managed to hang in and then began to impose ourselves on the game.
“That’s definitely not the way we want it, but that’s Test match rugby. You don’t get everything the way you want it and there will be mistakles, but it’s how we deal with that, especially in the first game of the championship. It would be wrong to expect that everything’s going to be perfect in the first weekend for any of the six teams.”
He added: “This is definitely an exciting squad, but there is a difference between being a good squad on paper and being a good squad on the pitch, and that’s what we’ve got to to get to. It’s about performance. That’s what we’ve got to deal with on Sunday. For me, it’s as simple as that.”
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE