It ought to be easier to win away in the professional era, players having more experience of foreign fields thanks to summer tours and European Cup matches. Yet it remains devilish hard.
In the 15 matches of the championship there were only three away victories last year. Wales and Ireland beat Italy in Rome and England narrowly beat Wales in Cardiff thanks to a dreadful Welsh mistake five minutes from the end. We all know how long it is since we won in Wales. But the fact is that unless there is an evident disparity between the sides, the home team usually comes out on top. Ireland are many people’s favourites for the title. They kick off in Paris where they have never found winning easy, where indeed their two-point victory four years ago was their first since a fresh-faced Brian O’Driscoll ran in a hat-trick of tries in 2000 to give Ireland their first win in Paris since – wait for it – 1972. So, while Ireland may be the best team in the tournament, it will be no surprise to me if France beat them today.
This afternoon’s Scotland and Wales teams look evenly matched. So it’s reasonable for us to go to Cardiff in hope of victory, unreasonable to go in expectation. We may, despite all the front-row injuries, have our best team for almost 20 years. Nevertheless it will surely be very hard to win in Cardiff. It wouldn’t astonish me if we were to lose in Cardiff and Dublin this year, while also beating France and England at Murrayfield.
Wales are without Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb, all usually first choices. Instead, they have six members of the Scarlets’ back division and, on the right wing, Worcester’s Josh Adams, who has been scoring lots of tries in the English Aviva Premiership. Since the Scarlets won the Pro12 last season and have been playing scintillating rugby in the European Champions Cup, it’s quite conceivable that Wales will be a better side for the changes forced on Warren Gatland. Indeed, back in the autumn, when there was talk of them playing in a more expansive and adventurous style, I suggested that they might be more likely to do so if they picked the Scarlets’ Rhys Patchell at stand-off rather than Dan Biggar. Now, perforce, they have done so.
So, looking at Wales, you might say it depends on which team turns up. Will they play Scarlets style or Gatland style? I would guess they will still try to come hard through the middle before being encouraged to spread it wide. Of course, the same question may be asked of Scotland. Will it be the team that ran riot against Australia and came within inches of beating the All Blacks in November, or the one which froze at Twickenham last year? My guess – and of course hope – is that the Twickenham horror-show was something this team won’t repeat – a salutary lesson, very much like that which England learned when they suffered a brain-freeze against Wales in the last World Cup. Their players have been mentally harder ever since. Good teams learn from bad experiences. Scotland will want a fast game. That’s the Scarlets’ instinct too, but I suspect Wales will be under orders to slow things up – a funeral-pace walk to setpieces.
The scrum is, of course, a worry. It always is because how any scrum performs on a given day is unpredictable – as unpredictable, you may say, as the referee’s interpretation of the law and the goings-on. Still, while many may have thought that the international days of Jon Welsh and Gordon Reid were over, they are both tough and experienced players, still well short of the veteran stage. If we avoid penalties at the scrum and give Wales few chances of throwing-in at a five-metre line-out, the odds may start shifting in our favour.
Defence matters, which is why, in the absence of Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor, Newcastle Falcons’ Chris Harris has been preferred to Mark Bennett. But the beauty of this Scotland side is that they are capable of scoring tries from anywhere – like those contrived by Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour for Glasgow against the English champions Exeter. They were the kind of tries which used to be thought the prerogative of the French, though this style of rugby takes some of us back to the days of Andy Irvine, Jim Renwick and John Rutherford, indeed to that glorious spring day in 1982 when we ran riot in Cardiff from the moment Roger Baird fielded a kick deep in our 22 and scampered off to set up a try for Jim Calder.
Something like that would be welcome this afternoon. First-round matches are often as dour as wet and windy winter weather. But, looking at these back divisions, this may be a high-scoring and splendidly entertaining match. Fingers crossed.