GREATER physical presence behind the scrum could tilt the scales in Scotland’s favour when Ireland visit Murrayfield on Sunday for one of the most eagerly awaited RBS Six Nations rugby clashes in years.
That’s the view of Michael Bradley, who, as well as being coach of an Edinburgh Rugby team that provides a third of the Scottish starting line-up, gained 40 caps for Ireland in his playing days from 1984-95.
Few on either side of the Irish Sea are better qualified than Bradley to give a form guide and, while stressing that the teams are evenly matched, the Edinburgh coach is quickly drawn to the fact that, outside the half back units, the Scots backs are almost half a stone heavier.
Even more striking is the fact that while every one of those five Scots stands at least six foot tall only a couple of Irishmen fall into that height category.
How might this translate in a match where Scotland have to prove their record breaking win over Italy was no flash in the pan?
“Scotland have at least a 50:50 chance because Ireland are a young side and they are small,” says Bradley. “The backs are a physically small back line whereas the Scotland back line is big outside of the half backs. That could be a telling factor. You might see tactically a couple of balls go in the air.”
If the kick-and-charge is one way of exploiting this extra bulk then Scotland had best be accurate, though, as Ireland’s full back, Rob Kearney, is still favourite to nail the Lions Test jersey this summer despite the advancing claims of Scottish counterpart Stuart Hogg.
“I know Kearney is at 15, but if they keep it away from him that could be a critical advantage to Scotland,” says Bradley.
World Cup warm-up fixtures excepted, there has been an air of inevitability about the Irish visit since 2001, but a string of injuries coupled with an apparent Scottish revival has made them wary on this occasion, Bradley says.
“It is going to be very hard to call. If you look on it from the outside on the basis of the past couple of years Ireland would have been clear favourites.
“They wouldn’t have been that worried about Scotland at all. Now they are extremely worried. That’s the vibe I’m getting from over the water.”
However, Bradley warns Scotland to beware a cornered beast: “Psychologically it is not a good position for Scotland to have Ireland worried. They will focus a lot on the scrum. If Ireland get the upper hand in the scrum it will be a long day for Scotland.”
One threat that will have to be seen off is the recalled Ulster prop Tom Court who packs down alongside experienced hooker, Rory Best.
Drawing on one of his most painful days as Edinburgh coach when a Heineken Cup final spot was snatched away, Bradley, who vacates his post at the end of this season, added: “Tom Court is a good performer and did well with Ulster last year in the Heineken semi-final when they did a job on our pack. So, I think scrummaging is probably in the back of Ireland’s mind.”
Bradley certainly takes a more upbeat view of Scottish rugby than distinguished former team-mate, Donal Lenihan, manager of the 2001 Lions.
Since the last meeting between the countries, Lenihan went into print in the Irish press discounting Scotland as a force and declaring: “Since the advent of professionalism in 1995, the game in Scotland has regressed at a rate of knots.
“When I look back at the outstanding Scottish players and great leaders, it beggars belief that their graph has fallen so dramatically.
“When you looked at how, out of necessity, [ex-coach] Andy Robinson was forced to play a scrum half, Greig Laidlaw, at out-half, it makes you wonder what his uncle Roy, who single-handedly punished several Irish sides with his pace off the base of the scrum, thinks about where Scottish rugby is going.
“You will win nothing at international level, or in the Heineken Cup for that matter, without a pair of half-backs with a clear understanding of how to pull the strings and manage a game. Scottish rugby always had them.”
In fact, Edinburgh subsequently went on to get within four points of a Heineken Cup final place and Scotland defeated Australia in their own back yard. So, a Scotland team that can surely use such remarks to fuel their traditional underdog spirit are not quite on the respirator yet.
And while there is a glaring need to start scoring tries in this fixture – only two in the last five instalments and those in the lost cause that was a thumping 13-40 defeat in 2005 – there is, as Lenihan “advises”, a maturing half back unit.
For the last couple of matches, Laidlaw and Ruairidh Jackson have provided a stable link, and the former surely pinpointed what has to be done when he talked about unsettling the unproven Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson at centre and stand off respectively.
“Ireland are big on their aerial kicks. That is one of the key areas for us. We need to win that battle to set us on our way.
“We will also be looking to unsettle their new caps who are a crucial lynchpin early on the game. We need get in about them, put them on the back foot. Hopefully they will get a bit cagey and that will let us into the game.”
Experience is on Scotland’s side and another telling note was struck by hooker Ross Ford when he talked of how the first-choice players were being kept on their toes.
Referring to how his understudy for the Italian match, Pat McArthur, now replaced by the fit-again Dougie Hall, got pitch side without getting a debut call, Ford said: “[Coach] Scott Johnson’s point about not giving the jersey away easily fits in with the ethos of the players and what goes on in changing room where there are plaques on the wall highlighting great players in the past who have worn the shirt. You have to earn it and when you are in that shirt have to give everything. Pat’s chance will come again, but it doesn’t come easy.
“[Johnson’s actions] makes boys on the fringes that bit more hungrier and the boys in the shirt work hard to make sure we don’t drop off.”
In other regimes, having McArthur come so close but not close enough might have caused some frisson, but Johnson seems to have avoided that.
Besides, McArthur is actually one of five uncapped players to have occupied a bench place for Scotland this season without getting the call, following on from Stuart McInally, Peter Murchie, Gordon Reid and Grant Gilchrist, which actually underlines that some depth is beginning to be developed.
As Tim Visser remarked this week, too: “People’s perceptions in a lot of areas of rugby can be changed very quickly and we have shown that. The atmosphere has changed since coming back for the Six Nations.”
Now is the time to put that to the test – onwards and upwards or back to the days of angst and introspection?