“MERCI messieurs”, someone calling herself Veronique wrote in a letter published in the French rugby newspaper Midi-Olympique. Her thanks were directed to the English and Scottish teams for having played “adventurous and expansive” rugby in the Calcutta Cup match. France on the other hand were, she said, “boring”.
Well, it’s nice to be thanked and I’ve enjoyed seeing Vern Cotter’s team playing with a bit of flair and enterprise. All the same, some of us might prefer to be in France’s position, with a couple of wins to our credit, no matter how boringly attained.
It’s been an odd Six Nations tournament to date. England have scored 11 tries, which is more than their immediate rivals, Wales and Ireland, have managed between them. Italy have scored six, we’ve scored five and France only four. So, at Twickenham today, there would seem to be a real role reversal. Goodbye “stuff it up the jersey” England; goodbye, sadly, French flair. All the same, France have conceded only two tries, one to us, and last week their pack shunted the Italian one all over the field. England’s set-scrum hasn’t been that impressive. So, if France avoid conceding penalties in their own half, they are capable of squeezing the life out of England. Role reversal indeed.
Ireland gave Wales a 12-point start in the first quarter of an hour last week, being penalised repeatedly at the breakdown. Thereafter, they took control of the match, but still managed to lose it. In a period of ascendancy they went through more than 30 phases, recycling the ball in the Welsh 22 – and failing to score. They battered and battered and battered, just as we have often done, and got nowhere, just as we have often done. Three to one overlaps were ignored, passes were thrown behind the receiver and nobody seemingly thought to put the ball behind the on-rushing Welsh defence. Wouldn’t Brian O’Driscoll have conjured up a try with a crafty grubber kick?
Well, Ireland will doubtless have their heads in better order at Murrayfield, and we can’t expect Jonny Sexton to play as badly as he did in Cardiff. Conor Murray’s box-kicking is also likely to be more accurate than it was last week, and the Irish backs have surely more to offer than they have shown so far.
There is going to be a lot of pressure on Ireland. To retain the Six Nations title, they must not only win, but probably, they will reckon, do so by a handsome margin. England’s points differential is better than theirs, and England will play later, knowing just what they have to do. The longer they can be kept from scoring and kept on the back foot, the more intense the pressure.
Some will say we are under similar pressure to avoid the Wooden Spoon. It is possible, of course, any such pressure will have been lifted before our match kicks off. If Italy should beat or draw with Wales, the Wooden Spoon is unavoidably ours. But, in truth, I doubt if the Spoon imposes any great pressure. It shouldn’t, because this Scotland XV doesn’t look or feel like a Wooden Spoon team. This is a game in which, from the Scottish perspective, the performance is more important than the result. The way this season has gone, I would rather see us score three tries and lose, than win by kicking penalties while producing little that would persuade Madame Veronique to say “thank you again”.
In terms of results, the season has been disappointing. Nevertheless, it has been valuable. There are seven players in today’s line-up with 16 caps or fewer: Dougie Fife, Mark Bennett, Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell. Jonny Gray, Adam Ashe and Blair Cowan. So, by international standards today, this is still an inexperienced team, one therefore with much room for development. Others – Stuart Hogg, Matt Scott, the absent Alex Dunbar and David Denton – may have played more international rugby, but are still in their early or middle 20s. None of these players has looked out of place at the international level. All are capable of improvement, and likely to improve. One day they are all going to spark. They may do just that this afternoon.
Rugby today is a highly organised game. Passion and flair are not enough at the top level (though they help of course). Matches tend to be won by the team that makes fewer mistakes and takes the right option most often. Defences tend to be on top. Only England in this tournament have averaged more than two tries a match – and six of their 11 tries came against Italy. In terms of try-scoring, we have been as good as Wales and better than Ireland and France. This is unusual.
What happens up front will, as usual, go a long way to determining the result today, but, while Scotland will respect Ireland, they have no reason to fear them. All the Glasgow and Edinburgh players in the Scotland XV know what it is like to defeat Leinster, Munster and Ulster. They know there is very little, either way, between the Irish provinces and the two Scottish clubs, and they expect to win their home matches against them. It is true that picking a composite Scotland-Ireland side might see a two-to-one ratio in favour of the Irish, but such a selection would have been made on reputation and, once the game kicks off, reputation counts, or should count, for very little.