Six Nations: Alex Dunbar ready for O’Driscoll test

HE GIVES very little away and while it tests the mind of a reporter to its limit that is just what Scotland coach Scott Johnson wants from his outside centre Alex Dunbar this weekend.

Alex Dunbar: Quiet focus. Picture: SNS
Alex Dunbar: Quiet focus. Picture: SNS

There is no great mystery to the style of game that Johnson and his assistants Jonathan Humphreys, Matt Taylor, Duncan Hodge and Massimo Cuttitta have dreamed up for Sunday’s opening RBS Six Nations Championship match with Ireland in Dublin. The forward pack is bristling with size, raw strength and aggression, and no little skill across an intriguing new back row shape, while the back line is anchored by two of the squad’s biggest threequarters in 6ft 2in Duncan Taylor and Dunbar, an inch taller and of a similar 16-and-a-half stone weight.

Working with the back row they will bring a degree of comfort to the half-back pairing of Greig Laidlaw and Duncan Weir, both of whom stand 5ft 9in tall, and face 6ft 2in opponents. Many will argue, rightly, that Scotland require more than a comfort blanket to take on Ireland, but they have not been selected to run rings around Jonny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll, a trio that possess the combined experience of 238 Test matches, and a few Lions ones on top.

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The Scottish fly-half and centres have 17, but they have been picked to play a certain game. We need no crystal ball to reveal that it starts with a solid defence that frustrates Ireland on their own patch, and, in possession, will revolve around an ability to kick ball deep into the Irish half and for lineouts that Scotland will fancy winning, and to batter into the Irish midfield with a venom that knocks them back and allows the kind of quick ball that can spring Sean Lamont, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg into space at full and dangerous pelt.

Dunbar and Taylor only made their Test debuts last summer, but Dunbar particularly made light work of it. Born and bred in Dumfriesshire, brought up on a farm, his memory of watching his first Six Nations game, “in the 1990s, maybe 2000s” was of “catching the last 20 minutes after finishing the lambing”.

He is a cheery lad, but finds media interviews more taxing than catching Hogg or Maitland, and admits he struggles to know what to say. He is looking forward to Sunday’s game, and is excited by the prospect of facing up directly to O’Driscoll in the Aviva Stadium in his first RBS Six Nations game as the old Irish master prepares to take his leave. But asked if it feels this challenge to be different to facing Paul Williams of Samoa on his debut in Durban or JJ Engelbrecht in Nelspruit in his second Test in June, he shrugs and replies: “It’s international rugby isn’t it? It’s all pretty similar. We’ve played against most of the Irish boys with Glasgow and Edinburgh so we know what they bring and how big a challenge it’s going to be. We’re just looking forward to it.”

Dunbar has come through the system from Lockerbie Academy to Annan RFC then Selkirk and the Glasgow age-grade ranks without much fuss, even picking up an agricultural qualification along the way. Little seems to faze “Big Eck”. And that in itself is exciting as one ponders how O’Driscoll might be curtailed in one of his final games in front of the Ireland support. “He’s a great player, one of the northern hemisphere’s best,” said Dunbar of his opposite number, “and I’m hugely excited to play against him. I’ve watched him in the Six Nations since I was young and I know how good he can be on his day, so I’ve got to make sure Sunday’s not his day.

“The first time I played against him was in the play-off with Glasgow last year, and it was a huge challenge, but I thought we dealt with him well that day so I’m looking forward to Sunday. He’s had a good career and was definitely someone I looked at as a youngster. I took note of the way he plays and some of the things he does, and I’ve tried to take some of these things into my game. In the northern hemisphere they [O’Driscoll and D’Arcy] are probably one of the most experienced partnerships so I’m just really looking forward to it. It’s a great challenge.”

Dunbar offers more than simply a big rock-like defence, and any defender who underestimates his ability to accelerate and off-load could regret it, but he does offer a solid presence in what is widely reckoned to be the most difficult defensive position in the modern game. Dunbar has grown into an astute defender, strong and mobile, but he does not believe there is a secret to it, nor in keeping O’Driscoll quiet.

“It’s just cutting down his space and time on the ball. Everyone knows that if you’re under pressure you can’t do as much as you’d like to do. So it’s about pressure really. Hopefully, the forwards can set a platform for us and stop Ireland getting much of a platform to play off.”

Two players, two centre pairings, at opposite ends of the international spectrum. Scotland have struggled with centre options and while Matt Scott – primed for a second half appearance – works his way back from injury and Nick de Luca and Max Evans strive to keep the pressure on, Dunbar and Taylor cannot be expected to outshine D’Arcy and O’Driscoll as they take their bows on the Six Nations stage. But how they go about their business, how successful they are at denying the Irish pair space and time, and how much of a strong platform they provide for Scotland in attack this first outing together will provide a key indication of the duo’s potential.

Quiet and understated maybe, but they do not lack for ambition either. Dunbar added: “Obviously, the boys improved last year and finished third, but we’re looking to go further this year. Of course we know how difficult the tournament is, and how difficult Ireland can be when they’re on their game so we have to make sure we turn up with the right attitude. We [Dunbar and Taylor] are both good ball-carriers, bring a lot of direct running, so hopefully we can get into the game early. We have a back three with lots of potential so hopefully we can give them lots of quick ball and let them do their thing. It’s exciting.”