THE last time Scotland played Ireland they ended up on the ugly end of a 40-point shellacking at BT Murrayfield on the final day of an exhausting Six Nations campaign.
Today the two teams meet again, only this time Ireland have the added advantage of playing at home, they already have one successful hit out against Wales under their belt and today’s opposition look a deal more experienced than Scotland’s somewhat experimental XV.
Six Irishmen survive from that Murrayfield match, only four Scots do and all of them are in the pack.
Pundits will attempt to read more meaning into this Scotland selection than it merits. The fact is that Vern Cotter has to navigate his squad through four warm-up matches that he didn’t request and probably doesn’t want, with the minimum number of casualties to his front-line troops. Before the World Cup kicks off the Kiwi must jettison 15 players of his 46-strong squad and you suspect that several of that number are in his starting line-up today.
Scotland have taken a leaf from the Wallaby handbook and started two specialist openside flankers, in Blair Cowan and Hugh Blake, the only debutant. In Richie Vernon they also start a former breakaway at outside centre while stand-off Greig Tonks and full-back Ruaridh Jackson both have more experience playing in each other’s shirts. On the face of it, Scotland will do well to cling on to Ireland’s coat tails for the full 80 minutes – not that their new full-back sees it that way.
“It starts this weekend,” says the impressively bearded Jackson. “We know it’s a full-blown Test match. We’re not trying to go out and just try a few things and blow a bit of rust out. We need to get a victory, something we can build on for the next three weeks going to that World Cup.”
Jackson missed the entire Six Nations campaign and it probably wasn’t a bad one to miss. In just his second match for Wasps in the Aviva Premiership last season he made to change direction and felt something pop in his knee. There was no contact, it was all his own doing. That injury occurred 11 long, frustrating months ago and while he would probably rather be sporting the number ten shirt today, Jackson certainly isn’t complaining about jumping back on the horse today, especially in Scotland colours.
“To be fair I definitely didn’t think when I came back into camp that I’d be getting my first full run-out at full-back but it’s something I’ve done throughout the camp,” he says with his customary good grace.
“Everyone’s been interchanging a bit, [Greig] Tonksie’s been playing there a bit, we’ve both been at 10 and 15. I’ve played there before so I should be relatively comfortable but from my point of view I just can’t wait to get back out on the pitch. It’s been a long 11 months.”
Oddly enough Jackson got a start for Scotland A in the No 15 shirt several years back and, only last summer, he came off the bench in Houston against the USA Eagles in the same position. Add in several starts for Glasgow at full-back and, suddenly, the move doesn’t look quite such a gamble, although Ian Madigan may take some convincing. The Irish stand-off is sure to test Jackson’s aerial ability from the off and the entire Ireland squad, now ranked No 2 in the world, have hit new heights under coach Joe Schmidt. No one ever said this match was going to be easy and the full-back knows what to expect.
“We know it’ll be a huge game. Last game of the Six Nations I was up here and speaking to the guys; they were bitterly disappointed and the atmosphere was pretty low. Guys will want to make a point. There’s quite a few that didn’t play in that game but, if they get a chance to show up, they’ll get a bit of pride back, I think. There’s so much at stake at the end of these few weeks to make the squad and guys are champing at the bit to get that real opportunity to show what we’ve been working for in pre-season, put out hands up and get out on that field.”
Is there a danger that too many players try to force things a little in an attempt to catch the selectors’ eye?
“Definitely,” replies Jackson. “When you’ve got something at the end you want to make a cut for then obviously you want to impress, but to impress you need to be doing the simple things right. I don’t want to force my hand, try too many things, make a mistake and have it snowball, so for me it’s about doing basics right; working with my wingers, the high balls that Ireland will certainly put up, and making sure I’m a good link in attack and organising the forwards in the wide channels. Very much I’ve been focusing on basics and if I execute well, I’ll be in good stead.”