Duncan Smith: Away form must improve for Scots to be contenders

The hurly burly of the Hurlingham Club on Six Nations launch day can be enough to make the head spin at times. A few hours of constant motion and a buzz of babble.

Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw, right, reacquaints himself with England skipper Owen Farrell at the Hurlingham Club. Picture: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Hosted in the East Wing of the exclusive west London private members club, which was opened in 2004 by its patron the Duke of Edinburgh, a highly-efficient army of PR workers escorts coaches and captains hither and yon, through musical chairs to a variety of rooms, from the functional to the quaint, set aside for interviews by daily papers, Sunday papers, broadcast, online, radio… possibly even 
carrier pigeon!

The takeaway from this year, apart from the goodie bags stuffed with tournament guides and a packet of Guinness-flavoured crisps courtesy of the new sponsor, would be that all and sundry are braced for potentially one of the most fiercely contested championships since 1883 when the four Home Nations first came together.

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“There’s a sign out there saying it’s the greatest tournament in the world,” said England coach Eddie Jones. “Four years ago I wouldn’t have said that but having been involved in it there’s nothing like this tournament. The intensity, the contest, how much it means to people, it’s a real honour to be involved in it.”

It was a more humble and collegiate Jones, who shared a curry with Welsh rival Warren Gatland the previous night, at this year’s event. Twelve months ago, when the launch was held in the Hilton next to the Duke of Northumberland’s Syon House, Jones had plenty to say about his rivals north of the border.

Then the issue of a Scotland revival was quite a talking point as, after almost two decades of malaise since Five became Six in 2000, a spark that had been lit by Vern Cotter had burned on through the rest of 2017 by new coach Gregor Townsend.

Jones called Townsend “a bright young guy” last year and described Scotland as “darlings of European rugby” for their ability to move the ball from “side to side”. The Scots were poised to start the campaign in Cardiff, with optimism high back home.

Interestingly, for all his talking up on the record, word reached the Scottish press that Gatland had been privately briefing Welsh journalists that he thought his side very much had the measure of the supposed sudden title contenders in dark blue and would win the game comfortably. After the harrowing 34-7 rout that followed, the Kiwi was happy to admit in post-match interviews that he had made such predictions and that they had been vindicated.

Things got better for Scotland after that wake-up call and Jones’s launch comments about Scotland came back to haunt him in the Calcutta Cup clash, which saw England’s air of invincibility pierced in stunning style.

But that was then, this is now. Gatland was at his last Six Nations launch (as Wales coach at least) before stepping down after the World Cup, and Jones, who is contracted until 2021 but may or may not be here following events in Japan, joked “I might be here for another ten years!”

Both were more concerned with heaping the pressure on champions, favourites and World Cup-chasing Ireland.

The rival coaches spoke diplomatically of five teams being able to win the championship, excluding 
Italy, who have now lost 17 straight Six Nations games – their last win, inevitably, being against Scotland at Murrayfield.

The feeling you got, though, was that Scotland were the outsiders of the five.

The Scots have earned respect as a team who can sting the big boys on their day but are yet to prove consistent enough. While they played superbly at times in the autumn, last year they failed to get over the line against South Africa, while other Home Nations were knocking off the Springboks for fun and Ireland were just showing off by beating New Zealand. Again.

Scotland’s woeful away record remains less a monkey on the back, more a silverback, and the supposed strides Townsend talks about when it comes to strength in depth are set to be tested again, with 20 players unavailable for the visit of Italy a week on Saturday, with particular pressure points in the key areas of front and back row.

Victories in those two opening home games against Italy and Ireland would change the dynamic drastically but, for now, the absence of any of those mind games so beloved by the Joneses and Gatlands of the world being directed at Scotland should not be viewed as a snub. Simply a fair reflection,