IT WASN’T what Scotland needed, the loss of their outstanding back Alex Dunbar just before the squad jumped on a plane for London, especially with everything that had gone before. The journalists at the press conference had to make do without the usual team sheet simply because Dunbar’s late accident meant that the press officer responsible had to rip up the old one and start again. Vern Cotter looked even more hangdog than usual and bemoaned his fate. I have attended cheerier funerals.
It may suit the Scotland coach to play down his team’s chances in public as Cotter insisted on doing yesterday and, after 32 years and 12 consecutive losses, that is the only realistic option to take, but the Kiwi coach will be singing a very different tune in the sanctity of the dressing room and he has beefed up his pack to add weight to his words.
Jim Hamilton is restored to the second row of the scrum and David Denton is recalled to the middle of the back row. “Dents” brings 6ft 6in of athleticism to the third row of the scrum and, perhaps more importantly given the situation Scotland find themselves, he also brings the boundless, puppy-dog enthusiasm of someone who has played only intermittent rugby since the summer. First up he suffered a concussion at the end of last season that kept him out of the summer tour. Then a hamstring injury kept him sidelined for several months at the start of this season and finally he suffered a 4cm tear to his calf playing against Bordeaux in the European Challenge Cup. As he said, bad luck comes in threes, so he should be plain sailing from here on in.
“I have not been in camp since I got this (calf) injury so it is all new to me,” said the Edinburgh No 8 yesterday. “This week has been tough for the boys. The first two weeks we lost there were a few things that were marginally wrong that would have turned the game and we could have come away with two wins. It didn’t happen but then the result of the Italy game left the boys devastated. It was very clear to see early in the week but the nature of the business we are in means we cannot dwell on that.
“The coaches have made a real effort to turn that around as they had to. If we want to take this team where we want to and be competitors at the World Cup we can’t have performances like we had last weekend. I am hoping I can bring a bit of energy and some enthusiasm to the team. The most important thing is I get my game right, know my role and bring some physicality to the match.
“I feel good. I have not been out for as long as I have been in the past. I have only been out for a month. I have actually not spent that much time away from a rugby ball and a rugby pitch, which makes a difference because you get back into it a lot quicker. I felt really good against Treviso (last weekend), I was finding myself in the right positions and that is important. You need to be able to read the game and that is the thing that takes time getting back to.
“You are always going to be tired on the pitch and that is when the mental part of it comes in, being able to push through that. No doubt there will be a time at the weekend when all of us are just going to have to buckle up and strap in. It is going to be all guns go. I am looking forward to it and I think I am ready.”
They say that generals are always fighting the last war rather than the next one so it is possible that England will adopt a different tactic from the driving maul that brought Italy two tries and that late victory...possible, but not very likely. Stuart Lancaster can’t afford another hiccup after that Dublin reversal and he will be more than happy to maul Scotland clean out of tomorrow’s match if that is what it takes. The visitors will need to show they can learn a lesson. They must stop England on or behind the gain line both on a collective and a personal level because Denton’s opposite number, Billy Vunipola, is a brick outhouse on legs and a pretty quick one too, as he exhibited in one startling sprint up the wing in Dublin.
“From a personal battle point of view Vunipola is a huge ball carrier for them,” says the man tasked with stopping the run-away locomotive. “He is a very hard worker, a lot of people don’t give him credit for that. He is on the ball a lot and they use him a lot. He’s a big guy and the way we play we are going to have to chop low. We are going to have to get him low but you can’t use that as an excuse to tackle passively. We have to be aggressive and hit him low and get him behind the gain line. If we let their forwards get momentum they have a back line that can really run. In contrast if we hit them behind the gain line we are hoping they will run out of ideas.”
Even in the absence of Dunbar the Scottish backline still has a few lethal weapons but it is difficult to escape the old adage that forwards win matches and backs decide by how much. Scotland’s forwards have to earn parity, or something close to it, against what is one of the best forward packs in world rugby with a point to prove. It may not quite be the moon landing but, as JFK remarked, we do these things not because they are easy but because they are difficult.
“It is 32 years since we won there and have our backs against the wall, which is a position we admittedly have been more times than we would have wanted,” says Denton.
“With the promise this team has shown we want to make that right and this is a great opportunity for us to do something that has not been done in 32 years, which is to go down there and bring the Calcutta Cup back up to Scotland.”
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