Just when the All Blacks were on the point of being hailed as “The New Invincibles” Ireland turned the rugby world upside down with a wonderful display of aggressive defence and applied intelligence.
The All Blacks were hustled into mistakes, and put under pressure by skilful attacking kicks from Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray. This was a nice change from the often endless unimaginative recycling of the ball, and when you have chasers like Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Simon Zebo, there’s nothing breaks up defensive patterns like a good old Garryowen.
Ireland’s display should give heart to Scotland. If they can beat the All Blacks in Chicago, why can’t we beat the Wallabies at Murrayfield? We came close to defeating them in the World Cup quarter-final, though Greig Laidlaw, being a level-headed Borderer, reminded us this week that Australia that day scored five tries to our three.
We might have more reason to be confident if we were at full strength today. Of course, most international sides are usually missing a few first-choice players, but some can afford this more easily than others, and we are usually among the others. There’s nowhere that experience is more highly prized than in the front-row, and though Ross Ford is remarkably and deservedly winning his hundredth cap, he will be propped by two young men whose sum total of international experience is the 20 minutes or so that Zander Fagerson enjoyed in last season’s Calcutta Cup. Last week, Wales were captained against Australia by their loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins, who has played, by my reckoning, more than 150 hours of Test match rugby for Wales and the Lions.
Australia were very good in Cardiff, running the ball with fluency and imagination. This was possible because, in the first half especially, they almost always got quick clean ball from the breakdown and Nick Phipps at scrum-half moved it on immediately and accurately. Fly-half Bernard Foley was the star, but it was the service he got from Phipps that enabled him to shine so brightly. Phipps has been replaced today by Will Genia, who may not be quite the player he was, and is sometimes inclined to take too much on himself and get isolated.
Wales, of course, were very poor indeed last week, and both Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb kicked badly, giving the dangerous Israel Folau ample time to field the ball and run. So Laidlaw and Finn Russell have to kick more accurately and imaginatively; they’ll be aware too that we are sadly missing Tommy Seymour, our best chaser.
Not since Brendan Laney was capped almost as soon as he stepped off the plane from New Zealand have we picked a player with less experience of Scottish rugby than Huw Jones, capped as a sub in Japan in the summer, but still playing his club rugby in South Africa. Clearly Vern Cotter has seen something in him that he likes. So one hopes he shows us what that is this afternoon. I confess that, with Duncan Taylor injured, I would have preferred to see Mark Bennett wearing the number 13 jersey. He may not have been quite at his best for Glasgow in recent matches, but he has the invaluable ability to make breaks and score tries, even from unlikely situations. Perhaps Jones is thought to be better in defence. In that context, it’s good to see Alex Dunbar back. Last week, Australia cut through the Welsh midfield almost at will, with dummy runners flirting with illegality and slick passing.
Vern Cotter’s Scotland are still an up-and-down team. When they are in the vein they are very good. When they are bad, they are horrid. They were miserably stodgy in Japan, all the adventurous rugby being played by the home team. If that form is repeated, we’ll once again be relying on Laidlaw to keep us in the game with his goal-kicking, just as Chris Paterson and Dan Parks did in their day. Of course, Russell was absent in Japan and is present today, but we shouldn’t place all the responsibility for playing with some sense of adventure on his still young shoulders. Enterprise requires commitment from all. Otherwise, your playmaker finds himself making play too often and sometimes when he shouldn’t.
It’s going to be a testing day for our back-row, and especially for young Hamish Watson, selected ahead of John Hardie, starting an international for the first time and up against those priceless marauders Michael Hooper and Dan Pocock. Nobody ever said Test match rugby was meant to be a stroll in the park.
Scotland can win today if they play with a fire and pace that was lacking from the Welsh. But, if they play as they did in Japan, Australia will be on their way to achieving their ambition of a clean sweep in their autumn tour.