Hamish Watson: Scotland's Six Nations has been 'mixed bag' - but Ireland win can change a lot
Three wins from five would still leave Gregor Townsend’s side off the pace in terms of a title challenge but would add undoubted gloss to a season that began with such promise against England then turned sour in Cardiff.
There are parallels with last year when the Scots finished on a high by defeating France in Paris for the first time in 22 years.
The wait for a win in Ireland is not quite as long – 12 years and counting – but the big difference this weekend is that the visitors will have to deal with a boisterous home crowd, thirsty to toast a Triple Crown success at the very least.
The Stade de France was empty last March when Duhan van der Merwe touched down in the corner in injury time to win an impossibly dramatic match for Scotland. By contrast, the Aviva Stadium will be rammed.
“It’s a very tough place to go and play,” acknowledged Watson, who would have been winning his 50th cap in Dublin had a positive Covid test not forced him out of the France game. “It's quite a hostile environment. But we believe in ourselves and believe in the squad.
“The last few occasions we’ve been there it has been decided within a try, so it’s going to be a tight encounter, a close game. And Ireland are a very good team – one of the in-form teams in world rugby at the moment – so we’re just excited to test ourselves against one of the best teams in the world.”
Ireland have followed up their stunning win over New Zealand in the autumn by beating Wales, Italy and England in the Six Nations. Their only defeat was a narrow one; against champions elect France in Paris.
Scotland despatched England in their opener but laboured to a narrow defeat in Wales and were well beaten by France at Murrayfield. A degree of optimism was restored with five tries and a victory in Rome but the final 20 minutes left a slightly sour taste as Italy finished on top.
“It’s a mixed bag, isn’t it?” reflected Watson. “It started really well, on a positive note, but we didn’t manage to back it up against Wales and that really hits confidence.
“I don’t think we’ve played at our best, and it’s about trying to put our best game on the field and a performance that we deserve to put in for the fans as well and for us as players. We’ve worked hard this tournament and we need to try and put it all together and put in a good performance.
“If we got a win away in Ireland – which is going to be a pretty tough task, I think – that would be a nice way to top off the tournament.”
Scotland have rolled the dice and picked Blair Kinghorn over Finn Russell at stand-off in what is a bold call by Townsend as he seeks his first win over Ireland as head coach.
Consistency remains an elusive concept for his side whose campaigns continue to resemble rollercoasters rather than smooth rides. Being able to select the similar combinations helps and for the first time in this championship Townsend is able to field the same back row in consecutive games.
Watson will once again have Rory Darge and Matt Fagerson alongside him as the visitors try to do some damage at the breakdown in Dublin.
It won’t be easy against an impressive Irish back row and it is easy to forget that this is just Darge’s third Scotland start given the impact he has made. Watson, who played alongside the 22-year-old before the youngster’s move from Edinburgh to Glasgow, has been impressed but not surprised by the way in which Darge has stepped up for Scotland as they adjusted to the loss of Jamie Ritchie to injury in the England game.
“To have a great Six Nations you need consistency,” said Watson. “You need to be very lucky with lots of things, like injuries and Covid. We did get that consistency last season but then again this season the guys who have come in have shown how much depth we have in the back row, an area which is never really a problem for Scotland I think. Darge has come in and done an amazing job.
“I saw that in him at Edinburgh. We always used to play the club highlight reels, so we could see what players could do at club level.
“You could see that he was going to be a very good player. But that's just the way it works sometimes with young players, especially in Scotland where you've only got two clubs. I'm really happy that he decided to make that move because he's obviously gone to Glasgow, got a shot, and done really well.”
Scotland were edged out 19-12 in Dublin two years ago in a game best remembered for Stuart Hogg dropping the ball just as he was about to touch down for a try on his bow as the new captain. Last year it was even closer, with Johnny Sexton landing a late penalty to give Ireland a 27-24 win at Murrayfield.
Watson knows the margins are small and Scotland must curb their propensity for giving away penalties, particularly at the breakdown, if they are to emulate Andy Robinson’s side of 2010 and deliver Townsend his maiden victory over Ireland.
“We have given away too many penalties in this competition,” said Watson. “We all know how good Ireland are and how we need to be at our best, one to 23, to get the win. We know the task ahead and we are excited about it. This is a great opportunity to test ourselves, and yeah, we have to be on it.
“It's going to be tough at the breakdown. They're very good in the tackle contest and they like to rip the ball, choke, and go up top to slow the ball down. So we've been working on our contact skills during the week. It's going to be a great battle there at the breakdown.”
It’s likely to be the key battleground and if Scotland can stay on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes and play to the levels of which they are capable then a narrow victory is not beyond them.