Rugby World Cup: Scotland stand on brink of defining moment - but Ireland don't take many wrong turns
This was despite a police escort and there were dark mutterings in some quarters about the visitors being victims of skulduggery. Joe Schmidt, Ireland’s coach at the time, later remarked that “we arrived at the stadium 10 or 15 minutes late and we were late for most things in the first half”. Scotland, inspired by two Stuart Hogg tries, raced into a 21-8 lead before Ireland recovered their composure and edged ahead 22-21 after the interval. The game was on a knife edge but Vern Cotter’s Scotland dug in and won 27-22 thanks to two Greig Laidlaw penalties and a gutsy last 20 minutes.
Ireland haven’t taken many wrong turnings since. A series victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand, grand slam Six Nations champions and 14 months atop the world rankings are the edited highlights. They possess a streetwise hard edge which combined with an abundance of ability makes them formidable opponents, a power on the world stage.
Scotland have flirted with great things. Cotter was jettisoned after the 2017 Six Nations, making way for Gregor Townsend whose win record is the best of any Scotland coach in the professional era. There have been 41 victories in his 73 matches, 31 defeats and one draw. The win rate measures out at just over 56 per cent but look beyond the bald statistics and you will find notable successes against England, France, Australia and Argentina.
Ireland are conspicuous by their absence from that list. Townsend has never got the better of them as head coach and it’s a record he will have to overturn if Scotland are to prolong their involvement in the 2023 World Cup. The sides meet at the Stade de France on Saturday night in a showdown that should restore some much needed vitality to a tournament that has burned brightly in moments but suffered from occasional longueurs. The two weeks between Scotland’s first two matches felt like an eternity. The defeat by South Africa in the opener in Marseille combined with Ireland’s win over South Africa in Paris left Scotland in a bad place. They came back with bonus-point wins over both Tonga and Romania but they need to beat Ireland by eight points on Saturday to have a chance of reaching the quarter-finals.
This could be a defining moment for both Townsend and Scottish rugby, the two of which have seemed inextricably linked for most of the past three decades. As a player he tasted glory in Scotland’s 1999 Five Nations triumph, scoring a try in each match in what was the national team’s last great success. The highlights as coach have been more sporadic but significant nonetheless. A first win over England at Twickenham in 38 years followed by three victories in a row against the Auld Enemy; a first win over France in Paris in 22 years and a first away win in Wales in 18 years. Scotland have also beaten Australia home and away under Townsend and run New Zealand close at Murrayfield. What they haven’t done is put together a run of results that would have allowed them to challenge for trophies. Third place has been their best finish in the Six Nations and they were dumped out of the last World Cup after defeats by Ireland and Japan. If they fail to get the required result against the Irish ton Saturday Townsend will become the first Scotland coach to have presided over two group stage exits.
But this year’s tournament feels very different from 2019. In Japan, Scotland stuttered to a hugely disappointing loss to Ireland then succumbed to a host nation suffused with righteous indignation over what Typhoon Hagibis had done and the way some nations had reacted. The key difference between 2019 and 2023 is that Scotland were expected to make the knockout stage in Japan. Virtually no one gives them a chance in France, where Scotland are 1/25 to be eliminated at the pool stage.
Against this backdrop Scotland will have to outfight a team who seem to be able to dig deeper than any other. Ireland’s win over South Africa last month was a masterclass in obdurate rugby and the Scots will need to match it to stand a chance. Grant Gilchrist, the Scotland vice-captain, spoke eloquently on Friday about embracing the emotion of the occasion and banishing all fear. He also referenced Scotland’s win over France at the Stade de France in 2021 as an example of what this team is capable of when the chips are down. On that occasion, they had been reduced to 14 men by Finn Russell’s red card but built phase after phase to win the game in injury time with Duhan van der Merwe’s try.
Same stadium, different opponents. Scotland have beaten France five times under Townsend but lost all eight times they’ve faced Ireland. It’s a wretched record but the coach has belief it can be broken.
"Well, why not?” he said. “The players have performed in massive games before. We were underdogs but we have broken records, whether it was not winning in Paris, not winning at Twickenham. This is another opportunity to break another record. We believe in them, we believe in where they are mentally as a group and where they are physically. They are ready to play their best rugby.”
Scotland’s best rugby is a sight to behold. Fast and devastating, their backline on song is a match for anyone’s, but they need the ball. They never got it against South Africa and were squeezed out the game as a consequence. Scotland’s forwards have to take the fight to Ireland. As Fraser Brown wrote in these pages this week, Scotland need to play their own game and not change their identity to counter the opposition. Their forwards need to be confrontational and they need to create quick ball that Finn Russell can thrive off. The lineout needs to be accurate, which it wasn’t against South Africa. Scotland’s four match-day props need to get the better of Ireland in the scrum and Scotland’s back row needs to muzzle Peter O’Mahony and makes the occasion of his 100th cap one to forget.
Whichever way the cards fall in Paris, one of the top five teams in the world will be eliminated, a consequence of the draw being made almost three years ago when the rankings were very different to what they are now. It’s a shame for the tournament that World Rugby organised it this way but the perfect riposte from Townsend’s side would be to deliver the victory that would put Scottish rugby back on the map.
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