ON SUNDAY, Ireland visit Murrayfield and they will be expected to win. They’re coming here without some of their heaviest artillery but still there will be no allowances for failure.
There’s no Paul O’Connell, no Stephen Ferris, no Cian Healy, no Mike McCarthy. There’s no Tommy Bowe, no Jonny Sexton, no Simon Zebo, no Gordon D’Arcy. That’s eight starters all missing plus a rookie, Paddy Jackson, at fly-half and another rookie, Luke Marshall, in the midfield and yet the bookmakers still make Ireland favourites to come to Edinburgh and win just like they have won in their last five championship matches at Murrayfield. This should be an insult to Scotland, but it’s the reality. Despite being stripped of powerhouses and leaders and speedsters and vast, vast experience most people still expect Ireland to fetch up and win.
Anything apart from a win would bring a truckload of grief down on top of Declan Kidney’s head, grief that he might be lucky to survive. Two of the previous three Ireland coaches – Brian Ashton and Warren Gatland – suffered mortal damage after defeat by Scotland and the feeling is that Kidney could go the same way if things go wrong on Sunday. Losing to England was a kick in the guts, but it’s tolerable. Losing to Scotland would bring a different reaction. Ireland have had it so good for so long against the Scots that the national psyche is not ready for defeat regardless of the patched-up nature of the team they are sending over.
Publicly, Kidney and his captain, Jamie Heaslip, will talk Scotland up. They will talk of seeing big improvements in their game, a newfound edge in attack and an ability to put teams away that they haven’t possessed in recent years. All of this they will believe, of course. They will speak of Scotland’s belligerence up front against the Italians and how they have respect for any team that can go toe-to-toe with Italy in the physical battle. Again, they will be telling no lies.
There is an unspoken truth, though. Amid all the praise they will bestow on Scotland for their victory over Italy there will be a sense of perspective. Italy were a shambles. Their forwards left all their intensity back in Rome. Their fly-half left all his composure behind on the day they beat France. In fairness, Scott Johnson has been quicker than anybody to point out the dangers of reading too much into his team’s win. Even in the minutes after that landslide victory he was talking down its significance and he did so again yesterday. When asked if that kind of performance would be good enough to beat Ireland he was unequivocal in his answer. “No,” he said. No messing about. No ambiguity.
Sometimes rugby is as much about the psychological as it is about the technical. And Scotland’s psychology is still very much in question. That is how Ireland will see it even if they wouldn’t dare to say it. They will be respectful of Scotland because of their new weapons in the backline but they will also be mindful that the recent history of Scottish rugby is pock-marked by false dawns, by good wins followed by dismal failures, by mental fragility when things get rough. The optimism of autumn 2009 and the let-down of the Six Nations that followed it. The highs of summer and autumn 2010 and the grim championship that came after. The encouraging pre-World Cup form and the nightmare that ensued in New Zealand. The hat-trick of wins last summer and the hat-trick of defeats last autumn.
This has been the way of it. Scotland have see-sawed too often for the likes of Ireland, even in their diminished state, to be cowed by them. The fans, to their eternal credit, will turn up at Murrayfield in big numbers hoping against hope that this time, at last, they will witness the turning of the corner as opposed to the headlong rush into another wall. It’s been 12 years since Scotland won back-to-back matches in the Six Nations. As much as people want to believe that this weekend will bring an end to that run you’d be as well not getting your hopes up. Only if they win can we even begin to have the conversation about a team heading in the right direction.
Ireland will have the psychology of winners and it’s up to Scotland to match it. That’s their first battle. To play from the start like they believe they can win as opposed to a team that is fearful of winning. That’s a shift in mindset that they haven’t been able to make too often over the last dozen years. Sean Maitland and Tim Visser might help the process given that they hail from countries that are not lacking in confidence in their national psyche, Maitland spending his rugby life among winners and Visser possessing something of the inner confidence of a classic Dutch footballer.
There is more than a touch of brio about the pair of them and that’s only a good thing. Scotland have lacked attitude in recent times. They have lacked a healthy arrogance. In Maitland and Visser, they have it and the hope is that it becomes infectious.
This is a golden opportunity that awaits them on Sunday. Ireland are missing so many players that Scotland should feel mortified if they don’t put them away. In replacing the injured Sexton, Kidney has gone for Jackson as his fly-half and goal-kicker and it could be argued that the selection is the biggest gamble of his professional coaching life. Jackson doesn’t kick goals for Ulster. That job falls to the peerless Ruan Pienaar. He doesn’t command the backline. Pienaar does it. He doesn’t lead and doesn’t inspire the players around him because the South African is a force of nature at Ravenhill and does everything bar drive the bus and mow the pitch.
Jackson can pass and he’s quick but the biggest game of his life was last year when Ulster played Leinster in the Heineken Cup final and he had to be taken off just after half time. Last summer, Ireland went on a three-Test tour of New Zealand and Kidney didn’t bring him. Now he’s dropping him into a Test match and giving him the kicking duties to boot. You can see why. Ronan O’Gara’s form has fallen off a cliff. But to a coach like Kidney, who is usually so risk-averse, this is untypical and has an element of the rolling dice about it.
Of course, Scotland are not blessed at 10 themselves, the other Jackson, Ruaridh, hardly a source of comfort as anybody who has watched him through the cracks in their fingers will testify. This is a moment when the Scottish Jacko must step up, though. Step up or step out. It’s a mantra that the whole Scottish team could adopt.
There is much to respect but little to fear from this depleted Ireland, shorn as they are of so many marquee players and match winners. The big job for Johnson is getting his players to believe it and to play accordingly, to turn up with the same mental strength as Ireland have displayed so often when establishing this long winning sequence at Murrayfield.
A while back, I interviewed Heaslip and he said how much he loved Edinburgh, how much he enjoyed strolling along the Royal Mile and stopping off for a coffee and watching the world go by. Murrayfield is one of his favourite grounds, he said. The Scots are some of his favourite people. If he’s still talking like that on Sunday evening then we’ll know what’s happened. We’ll know that Ireland’s mentality has won the day again even in a time of dramatic weakness. If Scotland let it happen then we may as well fold our tents and pack it in. Sunday will be an enormous day in the life of this team, one way or another.