Scotland can either leave Six Nations on high - or arrive at the crossroads of progress

Scots are huge outsiders in Dublin as Ireland prepare for a huge St Patrick’s weekend party

Gregor Townsend has described the thumping defeat by Ireland at the Rugby World Cup as “a marker in the sand” for his Scotland squad and the head coach believes progress has been made since that night in Paris when Andy Farrell’s side had the bonus point in the bag before half-time.

But it felt like a case of two steps forward, one step back for the Scots last week as they crumbled in Rome and Townsend knows they will have to produce their best performance of the championship in Dublin on Saturday to have any hope of ending the wretched run against Ireland which has stretched to nine defeats in a row.

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A repeat of the lapses and inaccuracies that characterised the loss to Italy would be eagerly seized upon by opponents intent on having a title party to kick-start St Patrick’s weekend. Ireland are within touching distance. Two points is all they require to be crowned champions again but, after the Grand Slam-denying defeat by England last Saturday, they will want to do it in style.

Scotland’s Ben White, Scott Cummings and Finn Russell emerge for a pre-match training session at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin ahead of the Six Nations clash with Ireland. (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)Scotland’s Ben White, Scott Cummings and Finn Russell emerge for a pre-match training session at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin ahead of the Six Nations clash with Ireland. (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)
Scotland’s Ben White, Scott Cummings and Finn Russell emerge for a pre-match training session at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin ahead of the Six Nations clash with Ireland. (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

If the Twickenham result has taken the gloss off slightly for the Irish, Farrell was keen to stress that back-to-back championships would still be a colossal achievement. “History shows you that this is very hard to do,” said the Ireland coach. “Five other teams would love to be in our position, and we’ll take that responsibility and grab it, and let’s see what we can do with it. St Patrick’s weekend, in front of your own fans, last day of the Six Nations, it really doesn’t get any better, does it? I suppose you’ve got to cherish that and enjoy the whole thing and get after it together.”

England’s win over Ireland offers Scotland a glimmer of hope and Townsend referenced the way they pressed their opponents all over the park before clinching victory with a last-gasp Marcus Smith drop goal. “I think England showed real energy throughout the game, off the ball in particular,” said the coach. “I thought they pressurised Ireland, never let them settle. That’s something you have to do: you’ve got to be on it defensively, with your chasing game, and with your work rate off the ball. And you’ve got to take opportunities.”

Townsend thinks it inevitable that his team will concede points and reckons Scotland need to score at least 20 to have any chance. Even that might not be enough: Ireland have averaged 31.75 points across their four games.

Both coaches have resisted the temptation to rip it up and start again after the round four defeats. Townsend has kept faith with his pack and made just two changes to his back division, with Ben White and Stafford McDowall replacing George Horne and Cam Redpath at scrum-half and inside centre, respectively. Farrell has picked the same XV. “Sometimes when people are disappointed you tend to get a good reaction out of them,” said the Ireland coach.

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.

Scotland will be hoping so too and there was certainly plenty to be disappointed about in last week’s match as they conceded a slew of second-half penalties as well as a couple of tries. The Irish will have seen little in Rome to frighten them. Bernard Jackman, the former Ireland hooker turned media analyst, feels there’s an imbalance in the visitors’ ranks which the home team has exploited with regularity.

“When I look at this Scotland side, I see a team that is lopsided in terms of their backs over their forward strength,” said Jackman. “Their back-row isn’t too bad, but collectively, as a front five, they tend to struggle, especially against this Irish team who, on paper, have their number.

“Finn Russell is the key to Scotland, and I often feel that they over rely on him. Simon Easterby has improved Ireland’s defence even more this year and I think we get to Russell and disrupt the supply to their outside backs who individually have a lot of talent and X-factor.”

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The bookmakers agree and a Scotland win is available generally at around 8/1 and 9/1. There is widespread scepticism over their ability to deal with Ireland’s physicality. Rory Darge, the Scotland co-captain, will be part of a back-row battle against a Peter O’Mahony-led Irish trio whose ferocity has elevated them to new levels. Ireland haven’t lost back-to-back Six Nations matches since 2020-21 and have won 18 games in a row at home. So what can Scotland do to change the narrative?

“It’s tough,” admitted Darge. “They seem to be able to deal with a lot that’s thrown at them. We just need to focus on what we can do better from the Italy game but also what we think might put them under a bit of pressure. We’ve had a lot of learnings over this last week as you can imagine. It’s now just about putting it out there.”

Both Darge and Townsend have stressed the importance of starting well and it’s something Scotland have done during this championship, the England game excepted. They showed patience to play their way back into that game but it is unlikely they will be able to give Ireland a 10-point head start and still come out on top as they did in the Calcutta Cup.

Townsend knows Scotland should be going into the game with a proper shot at the title, not 100/1 outsiders requiring an improbable set of final-day results to win the championship. The France defeat was unlucky, the Italy one was of their own making but at least the wins over Wales and England offer them the chance to lift major silverware. Any sort of victory will give Scotland the Triple Crown for the first time since 1990 and turn this campaign into a success story. Defeat would leave Scotland at the crossroads and struggling to offer much evidence of progress in the past 12 months.

Ireland: 15. Hugo Keenan; 14. Calvin Nash, 13. Robbie Henshaw, 12. Bundee Aki, 11. James Lowe; 10. Jack Crowley, 9. Jamison Gibson-Park; 1. Andrew Porter, 2. Dan Sheehan, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Joe McCarthy, 5. Tadhg Beirne, 6. Peter O'Mahony (c), 7. Josh van der Flier, 8. Caelan Doris.

Replacements: 16. Ronan Kelleher, 17. Cian Healy, 18. Finlay Bealham, 19. Ryan Baird, 20. Jack Conan, 21. Conor Murray, 22. Harry Byrne, 23. Garry Ringrose.

Scotland: 15. Blair Kinghorn; 14. Kyle Steyn, 13. Huw Jones, 12. Stafford McDowall, 11. Duhan van der Merwe; 10. Finn Russell (cc), 9. Ben White; 1. Pierre Schoeman, 2. George Turner, 3. Zander Fagerson, 4. Grant Gilchrist, 5. Scott Cummings, 6. Andy Christie, 7. Rory Darge (cc), 8. Jack Dempsey.

Replacements: 16. Ewan Ashman, 17. Rory Sutherland, 18. Elliot Millar-Mills, 19. Sam Skinner, 20. Matt Fagerson, 21. George Horne, 22. Cameron Redpath, 23. Kyle Rowe.

Referee: Matthew Carley (RFU).



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