The French match was, in terms of both performance and result, the best – yet – for Vern Cotter and his team. France admittedly were not as good as Australia, whom we came within a whisker of beating in the World Cup quarter-final. But there was, let us admit now, something freakish about that game. Australia ran in five tries. We were never really in control, even though we came so close to winning. It was different on Sunday. There was composure as well as commitment. After the first ten minutes, we were in charge. It wasn’t one of these games in which we gallantly snatched victory.
So that’s two hurdles cleared. Today’s test is the stiffest yet. By their own recent standards, Ireland have had a disappointing championship, partly because injuries have prevented Joe Schmidt from fielding what would be his first-choice XV. But they still have a lot to play for, and not only because they are off to tour South Africa in the summer. Last week they played some lovely adventurous rugby against what was admittedly a very much under-strength Italy. Their backs responded to being given the freedom of the park. They won’t – shouldn’t – get that today.
Our recent record against Ireland is poor, and last year’s match at Murrayfield was the worst Vern Cotter’s team has played. We haven’t won an away 6 Nations game against anybody but Italy since we beat Ireland 23-20 at Croke Park six years ago. That was our first win in Ireland since 1998. The truth is, of course, that even good Scotland teams have always found it hard to win away from home.
Still there is reason to think this is now a good one and, indeed, on its way to being a very good one. It’s a pity that we are missing Jonny Gray and Finn Russell today, and Tim Swinson will have to put in a mighty shift to make up for the absence of the younger Gray who has been as much the heart of the team as Greig Laidlaw has been its brain. Like many I had thought Cotter might retain Peter Horne at fly-half since he played so well when he came on early against France after Russell had to go off. But he has opted for Duncan Weir, who has certainly been in sparkling form for Glasgow. If you question this decision, you might be wise to reflect that Cotter’s judgement is probably better than yours or mine. Selection, as Sir Clive Woodward has said, is the most important part of an international coach’s job, and Cotter’s record as selector is good and getting better the more he knows his players. Josh Strauss had a storming game against France, but Cotter has preferred Ryan Wilson at No 8, perhaps to give us more line-out options, perhaps because he reckons this will be a faster game.
It’s a match we can win – “should” is too strong a word, especially if we can achieve the same dominance in the set scrum as we had against France and Italy. The front row have been terrific, even if Ross Ford is a non-striking hooker, but few of us know enough about the mechanics of the scrum to know how much the second-row push from the brothers Gray has contributed, and can’t therefore guess how much Jonny may be missed in this part of the game. The modern scrum laws which have teams seeking penalties rather than quick ball for the backs may be deplorable – I think they are – but as long as this is the state of the law, we’re happy if Dickinson, Ford and Nel win penalties for Laidlaw to kick goals or to relieve pressure in our 22.
Elsewhere, of course, it’s what used to be known as “Le Crunch” and England’s attempt to win their first Grand Slam since 2003. They should do it because they are the best side in the championship and played very well indeed for more than an hour against Wales. Yet there must still be some doubts; their dominance then yielded only one try. As against that, any team which, like Wales, concedes six penalties in their own half to a side with a goal-kicker as good as Owen Farrell deserves to lose. Eddie Jones has said that everyone hates England – as an Aussie himself he should know – and sometimes, sadly, it’s not hard to see why when, for example, you find Stuart Barnes writing that England’s Grand Slam is “inevitable”. Likely, yes, just as it’s likely that Novak Djokovic will win another Slam title this year. Inevitable, no. So if England lose, Jones’ record will be just the same as Stuart’s Lancaster’s was in each season he was in charge: four victories, one defeat. Another reason to cry “Allez Les Bleus”?