Everyone now knows about Scotland’s dismal away record in the Six Nations. Dismal indeed, but we should realise that away wins are always difficult. Wales have lost in Dublin and at Twickenham this year. England have lost two of their last three away Six Nations matches, in Dublin last season, at Murrayfield a fortnight ago.
So there’s no doubt about it. Scotland will take the field this afternoon against a team that expects to win. Victory in Six Nations games in Dublin has become an Irish habit. You might say “a Joe Schmidt habit”; there has been no Irish defeat there since he became coach.
They’re a very competent team, and an unusual one. In each of their three matches this tournament – against France in Paris, Italy in Dublin, and Wales in Dublin – Ireland have enjoyed just over two-thirds of possession and two-thirds of territory. They keep control by, most of the time, keeping it simple: one pass from Conor Murray, drive forward, another pass from Conor Murray; and sometime if there has been no forward drive, a kick from Conor Murray. They can of course score tries, often good ones; they had four against Wales, the last however being a vital interception and runaway by left-wing Jacob Stockdale. If he has missed his interception, Wales would probably have scored, and stolen the match. But he made it, and now only Ireland have the chance of a Grand Slam.
There’s another odd thing about their domination of possession and territory. They have conceded seven tries, the same number as Scotland and Wales, more than either England or France. So there is some defensive frailty – perhaps they are inclined to get a bit narrow?
What then of our prospects? John Barclay and friends are unlikely to have as much success at the breakdown as they enjoyed in the Calcutta Cup. Ireland protect their ball better than England do. Then Ireland are usually secure at the set-piece. The set scrum is formidable, especially with Tadgh Furlong back, while at any five-metre lineout, in defence or attack, they throw to the towering Devin Toner. Opponents know that’s where the ball is going, but not what they can do about it. Behind the scrum Ireland have the Lions halves, and on the wing Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale have both been in try-scoring form. In short, Ireland look a very good team.
Scotland have themselves become more powerful and secure up front and nobody doubts that they can play gorgeous rugby – at Murrayfield anyway. Though there will be a lot of talk about the need for them to prove they can win away from home, I would reckon there’s more pressure on Ireland today. They have this home record to defend and such defences become more demanding the longer the record is there. Then they know that a win will put them in position to win the tournament. If Scotland start fast and hard, and score an early try, Irish nerves may just possibly begin to fray.
If Tommy Seymour’s injury had cleared up, Gregor Townsend would have fielded an unchanged side today, something which is unusual now. As it is, young Blair Kinghorn gets his chance. Some may worry that he is out of position. In truth, however, wings and full-backs are more or less interchangeable now. There’s no reason why Kinghorn shouldn’t find it as easy to alternate between 15 and 14 as Chris Paterson used to. It was surely only a matter of time before he was picked on one wing or other, since for the immediate future the 15 jersey will be available only if Stuart Hogg is injured.
The Scottish forwards were outstanding against England, and very good against France. It may sound paradoxical to say that they have been so good that all the Scottish tries have been scored by backs. But it isn’t. Tries which are scored after repeated pick-and-drives in the opposition 22 may reflect the ability of the piano-shifters to keep going, but it also often means that the ball has been retained too slowly to make it worth trying to release the backs. In contrast, all three tries against England were made possible only because of the speed and accuracy with which the ball was delivered to the backs – and it was the same with both Maitland’s and Huw Jones’ tries against France.
Today Scotland may have to try to win without having the ball for long periods. Wales struggled for possession in Dublin a fortnight ago – and then often made little use of the ball they did have. Scotland may also have to contrive something on limited possession. That can lead to playing rash rugby. On the other hand I doubt if we can beat Ireland without playing enterprisingly. Last year in Dublin England never escaped an Irish stranglehold, and ran out of ideas well before the end, just as they did at Murrayfield two weeks ago. This match offers a more tantalising prospect than any away Six Nations game Scotland have played for years. I suspect it will be won by the side that thinks more smartly.