When people look back at Scotland’s splendid 29-18 victory over France on Sunday it will be Stuart Hogg’s audacious overhead flip and Duncan Taylor’s breathtaking 60-metres dash for the line that stick in most memories.
However, even the most casual follower of rugby will know that, without the less glamorous shift put in by the big men up front, the outcome could have been very different.
Scotland’s increasing stature as a scrummaging powerhouse may not attract as much attention on the highlights reels and video clips shared around social media, but the all-Edinburgh front row of Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and WP Nel is arguably the most vital unit at head coach Vern Cotter’s disposal right now – the rock upon which everything else is built.
After demolishing the Italian scrum in Rome over two weeks ago, Scotland produced another muscular masterclass against the more formidable French and ended up with a 5-1 penalty count in their favour at that phase of the game. Dickinson was able to reflect with pride on another stellar display but said modestly: “Fordy and WP are so good and I just hang on to their coat tails. We knew we got a bit of mileage in the scrums against Italy and we’d have to step up again. We did, so we’re satisfied.”
The loosehead may be wrongly playing down his own contribution there but he is right when he points out that “it’s not about individuals”. Nel attracts a lot of deserved praise for the noticeable impact he has had, and the South Africa-born tighthead was immense again on Sunday, but a successful scrum need all three of its rows powering at full throttle and Scotland certainly had that against the French.
“We’ve worked hard over the past 18 months to two years at making that a real weapon for us,” Dickinson said of the scrum.
“It doesn’t get any easier. Especially when they [France] were bringing these superhumans off the bench at the end. They’re big men, real impact players so it was good we could negate that. It was tough but we managed to grind it out.”
Another satisfying aspect of the performance was the improved maul defence, an area which Scottish teams, at both national and pro-team level, have struggled with a fair bit this season.
“They [France] love to maul and they’re good at it so we knew we had to step up right away or they’d make gains there,” explained Dickinson, who won his 56th cap on the weekend. “We did well there. Jonny and Richie [Gray] are nerds when it comes to lineouts so there was a lot of emphasis on stemming that maul and not letting them get a foothold in the game.
“We had a few mauls in our own five metres. It was tough at times, but the practice we did during the week paid dividends.”
One in particular came with Scotland just 21-15 up midway through the second half with the French pressing hard. They spurned a kickable penalty, went for the corner and got the maul rumbling up to the line. But the Scots held firm and eventually escaped from that torrid part of the game with only three points conceded rather than the possible converted try that would have put France ahead.
“We were a bit under the cosh at that moment and we thought if we could get out of that it would take a lot of pressure off,” said the 32-year-old former Dundee HSFP and Heriot’s man.
“We did well and hung on. It shows a bit of maturity. There are a lot of young guys but we’ve learned how we can stop that, just stay calm, and we did that.”
Scotland now turn their attentions to Ireland in Dublin hoping to finish the Six Nations on a high with a third successive win, something which hasn’t been achieved for 20 years.
You are likely to hear the phrase “six-day turnaround” used a lot in the coming week as the Irish benefit from an extra day’s rest after their 58-15 pummelling of the spent Italians.
“I don’t know if it’s tougher for a front-row forward, maybe just tougher for those that are a bit older,” said Dickinson of the short preparation week.
“That’s international rugby, the schedule’s out of our hands. But it’s amazing how quickly you recover after a win.
“I’ll be sleeping a lot for a couple of days then get back in and see what the physio says. They’ve got our backs covered.”
Ireland’s bid for a third straight championship never really got going but, with just one win in Dublin [at Croke Park in 2010] since 1998, the Scots know Saturday’s task is a formidable one.
“I saw a bit of their game on Saturday. They were under pressure to perform and they did by blowing the Italians away,” said Dickinson.
“But going to Ireland is always going to be a brutal match. They’ll be keen for another good performance.
“Ireland maybe misfired early on but they had some tough games to start with.
“They’ve got a lot of confidence now and will be coming into the game all guns blazing. But so will we.”