Eddie Jones, a coach with a fondness for mischief-making, was talking about referees tending to favour the home side and remarked off-the-cuff that home teams win 91 per cent of the time when the referee for tomorrow’s France-England game is in charge. That referee is Nigel Owens, not a man incapable of a sharp response.
I’ve no idea whether Jones’ figure is correct but it would be no great surprise if it is. The fact is that most matches in the Six Nations are won by the home team. It’s not only Scotland and Italy who find it difficult to win away. The best teams – England, Ireland and Wales in the last decade – seldom lose in their own citadel.
In truth Scotland have always found away wins hard to come by. Jim Renwick was one of our greatest players, a member of some good Scotland sides with fine victories over England, France, Ireland and Wales to their credit. Nevertheless Jim, first capped in 1972, had to wait until Cardiff 1982 to experience a Five Nations victory away from Murrayfield. (He missed a win in Dublin in 1976 on account of injury.)
I mention this to dampen expectation, though not optimism, for this afternoon’s match. Ireland have hardly lost a Six Nations game in Dublin for years. We last won there in 2010. This proves nothing of course. We hadn’t won in Paris since 1969 on that day in 1995 when the ever-memorable “Toony flip” sent Gavin Hastings storming over the try-line to snatch victory.
Now, in the regrettable absence of Finn Russell , Gavin’s son Adam has the chance to emulate his father . He has been in excellent form for Glasgow, shining bright against Exeter and Sale Sharks, also kicking goals with pleasing regularity. Like Gavin and Uncle Scott he is not lacking in self-belief and so is unlikely to be fazed by the big occasion. I’m sure he will do very well if he remembers that he doesn’t have to make an impression on the game every time he has the ball. The greatest stand-offs have always been content quite often simply to pass it on and wait for an opportunity to present itself. His opposite number today is Ireland’s ageing maestro, Johnny Sexton, who will be playing his first match for several weeks and who isn’t perhaps quite the player he was two or three years ago. Looking at the line-ups there’s little to choose between the two sets of backs. True, we are missing not only Russell but also Hawick’s Darcy Graham. How Bill McLaren would have delighted in him – “slippery as a baggie in a Borders burn”. On the other hand, Ireland have omitted Keith Earls, inexplicably to my mind, for he too is slippery as any trout. There is no one better at finding his way through heavy traffic to the try-line. I love watching him but am quite happy I won’t be doing so this afternoon.
As ever, the team that gets on top up front is in a position to control the game and win. Ireland have very experienced props in Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong, both Lions, and they are up against Zander Fagerson who is still young but is becoming a formidable beast, and Rory Sutherland, who hasn’t played international rugby for four years.
At lock, James Ryan and Iain Henderson are an imposing pair but Jonny Gray is playing his best rugby for a couple of years and Scott Cummings, though still a novice in international terms, has been in cracking form for Glasgow in the Champions Cup.
In the Irish back row, Josh van der Flier has been rampant for Leinster while the mighty CJ Stander has been moved from 8 to 6 to accommodate Leinster’s new wonderboy Caelan Doris. Formidable-looking; nevertheless many of us may not be exactly distressed to see the great Peter O’Mahony consigned to the bench.
I haven’t seen much of our new No 8 Nick Haining, who two or three years ago was plying his trade for Jersey Reds in the English second division. Richard Cockerill is said to speak highly of him and Cockerill was a Leicester man in the days when the Tigers’ scrum was no place for anyone who wasn’t hard as teak or drifted out of games. Haining will be flanked by Jamie Ritchie, outstanding in the World Cup, and Hamish Watson whose own World Cup was cut short early by injury. Both are adept at the breakdown and, as ever, much will depend on how this is refereed.
Neither team had a good World Cup. Scotland were feeble against Ireland and will want to efface memory of that dismal performance. Both lost to Japan but Scotland came closer to beating the host country than Ireland did.
It’s a new season and new, or newish, teams. So the World Cup offers no pointers to the result today.
If the game was at Murrayfield, I’d be confident of victory but, for any away team, winning in Dublin is mighty hard work and very rare.