No mistaken identity as Dan McFarland warns of Irish threat
It is no secret that Scotland has been, in many ways, a divided country these past few years but there are certain things which can bring it together '“ few better than sport.
Take, for example, Andy Murray’s tennis achievements, Scottish athletes at Olympic or Commonwealth Games or the euphoria of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup win.
That’s not to say there aren’t issues surrounding national identity in rugby. The controversial residency rule is being extended to five years after concerns that the three-year timeframe was being exploited and turning the international game into a mercenary marketplace.
Few Scots would have had any issues with the fact that the brilliant Huw Jones, whose two tries lit up BT Murrayfield at the weekend, speaks in a Cape Town-infused English accent. The fact he was born in Edinburgh, before moving away as an infant, gives him an indisputable Scottishness which cannot be claimed by some of his team-mates.
Many remain uncomfortable with the looseness of international eligibility laws but whatever their accents or birthplaces it was clear in the joyous post-match celebrations that nobody could doubt this band of brothers’ pride in the Scotland jersey.
Few would have any issue, either, with the fact that the monumental forward effort which laid the platform for Saturday’s sensational 25-13 win over England was masterminded by a man with an English accent who grew up supporting Ireland, the side Scotland face next in the Six Nations a week on Saturday.
Coach Gregor Townsend was quick to praise the pack chief he lured from Connacht to Glasgow Warriors before bringing him on board when he took the national team reins last year.
The 46-year-old former loosehead was born in Oxfordshire but played the bulk of his career for Connacht in Galway before joining the province’s coaching staff. He also had spells with Ireland Under-20s, Emerging Ireland and the Irish Wolfhounds so it is an obvious question to ask if this upcoming fixture has even more resonance than the previous one.
McFarland said: “It’s funny that, people talked to me about the England game. I was a long time out of England. I was a long time in Ireland. I like Ireland, really enjoyed my time there.
“I know a lot of the coaches really well, a lot of the players. Does it have a special resonance? I just want Scotland to win. In all honesty, it wouldn’t matter who we were playing next week. It’s two games to go in the championship and everything on the line and I just want a Scotland win. I’ll do everything in my power to help that happen.”
Foreign-born coaches of national teams are as commonplace as foreign-born players and being paid to do a job can focus the mind without necessarily engaging the heart. McFarland views it with more complexity, though.
“You are starting to talk about who I am and my identity,” he said.
“I grew up in England but my rugby supporting life started watching the Five Nations and supporting Ireland because that’s who my dad and grandfather supported. I always supported Ireland growing up and then moved away and been away a long time. Your identity grows where you are and Ireland, obviously, because of the people I was involved with I supported Ireland then.
“When I moved to Scotland I wasn’t long at Glasgow Warriors before the guys I was working with day in day out were representing their country. And as a consequence I found myself sat in the stand for November internationals supporting Scotland.
“Why? Because Jonny Gray’s on the pitch? I’d been working with him and chatting with him two days before the game and I want him to win. I’ve worked closely with Gregor, Matt Taylor and Mike Blair since I came to Scotland.
“I want Scotland to do well as much as they do even though I sound like a BBC newsreader!”
All of McFarland’s knowledge will be called upon as Scotland aim to follow up their Calcutta Cup heroics by laying down a marker away from home and announce themselves as title contenders.
The Irish top the table, are ranked third in the world, and haven’t lost a Six Nations game in Dublin for over five years.
McFarland is under no illusion it will be a bigger test than facing England on home soil.
“Ireland are a good mauling team but they have variety in their play, as do England, who chose at the weekend to maul on a number of occasions and that’s something we had to deal with, the lads put a lot of effort into dealing with that,” he said. “It’ll be the same with Ireland, they have variety. They don’t just maul although it is a tactic they can beat you with if you allow them, so we’ll have to be on our game again, away from home that’s going to be tough going and we’ll have to respond.
“But there are other ways Ireland can beat you, it won’t be our singular focus.”
Scotland bossed the breakdown against England but at the Aviva Stadium will face a side who pride themselves on that area of the game.
“They’ve got a number of players who are clearly good at the breakdown,” added the assistant coach.
“We have a point to prove every time we play. We consider ourselves to be a good team, but you have to play to that level every week, it doesn’t really matter who the opposition is. It just so happens that the opposition coming up are Ireland in Dublin, and that is a formidable task.
“They’ve demonstrated over the last number of years how strong they are at home, their record is phenomenal, and they provide a brilliant challenge for us.”