Last weekend I had imagined Scotland would play well and still lose to England by a score and a bit. I was completely wrong so it is somewhat reassuring to know that someone with as sharp a rugby brain as Jim Telfer proved no more prophetic.
The former Scotland and Lions coach is still as shrewd a judge of rugby horse flesh as ever and when quizzed as to whether he had anticipated Scotland’s dazzling Calcutta Cup triumph he was habitually honest.
“No, I didn’t,” he concedes before adding, “but I don’t think England have played well during the autumn series or in the first two [Six Nations] games. I thought Eddie Jones is such an experienced coach he would realise that Scotland at home are now a formidable team to play against.
“Some of the [English] players looked a bit complacent, as though it was just going to happen, and I was surprised that Eddie Jones would allow that. It sometimes does come if you win so many games and the victories just come off the conveyor belt.
“Wales could have beaten them, should have beaten them because that looked like a try in the corner but the TMO went against them. So they could have been beaten by Wales at Twickenham which is worse for England than getting beaten at Murrayfield.”
In addition to an underlying complacency, Telfer points to the same reasons as everyone else, especially that imbalance in the back row where a very useful lock – Courtney Lawes – is masquerading as a blindside flanker.
“There is tendency by some coaches to put a big guy at blindside but I would have Lawes and [Maro] Itoje in the second row,” Telfer notes. “Lawes is a good player and he does these spectacular defensive tackles that no one else can do and he does them as extras when he is in the second row.
“I have always preferred to play a back row forward in the second row than a lock in the back row. I wouldn’t play Lawes or Itoje in the back row but that is what they want to do in England.”
Jones will be suitably chastised for not having his team on point for Scotland because it seems to take England about a decade to forget their last loss at BT Murrayfield. And while Scotland are able to win in Sydney and Buenos Aires, their Six Nations away form suggests that Gregor Townsend’s team would be homesick the minute they step south of Hadrian’s Wall.
They last beat one of the home nations in their own backyard in 2010; Ireland at Croke Park. Take Rome out of the reckoning and the Scots have won just two Six Nations matches on the road. Either this team puts that statistic to bed or abandon any title pretensions.
It’s Ireland in Dublin up next for Scotland on Saturday and, interestingly, Telfer thinks the two teams are quite similar in set-up. He points to the strength of both being in the back row and the midfield where Scotland’s trio of Finn Russell, Peter Horne and Huw Jones face off against Jonny Sexton, Bundee Aki and, most likely, Garry Ringrose.
“They are not particularly entertaining,” says Telfer of Ireland. “They are like a method actor rather than doing it with inspiration. They are very professional, they are very good at what they do but they were lucky against Wales in some respects. They have a belief in what they are doing and they are bringing in young quality players like [Jacob] Stockdale and Aki and [Andrew] Porter who are adjusting to international rugby very quickly.
“Scotland are better on the break but in the way they play the teams are quite similar. It’s mainly Leinster and Munster against Glasgow. They know each other very well and it will depend on which coach can work out the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.
“They have similarities in that their back row is very similar to our back row. Dan Leavy has come through the system, he knows what he is doing and he will be familiar with the Aviva. It could be a battle of the breakdown.”
Wales found gaps in the wider channels against Scotland and they hurt Ireland in the same areas so both teams have good reason to give the ball some width although that is not so say that both will. Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is nothing if not practical. When he arrived at Leinster in 2010 he was blessed with a Sexton/O’Driscoll/Darcy midfield that he used to devastating effect.
Perhaps now, with all those Lions in his forward pack, Schmidt feels Ireland have an edge up front because they were one-dimensional last time out. Against Wales they utilised the low risk, one out pass to such effect that Welsh coach Warren Gatland smeared sarcasm all over his Irish rival in the aftermath, “I thought they were outstanding,” was his response to a question about Ireland’s attack.
You suspect that Schmidt won’t lose too much sleep, not if his safety-first style can grind Scotland into the dirt and starve Scotland’s attacking threats of the ball in the process but Townsend will take heart from just how close Wales came to winning in Dublin with just 31 per cent of possession.
“Ireland play like Leinster and Scotland play like Glasgow,” says Telfer. “There is a bit more flair in the Scotland backs but they [Ireland] have flair as well. Johnny Sexton can be devastating. The similarities are that both teams know what they are trying to do and they impose their game on the opposition. That is where Scotland did so well against England and they did the same against New Zealand.
“Scotland got quickly into their game and they imposed their game on England who couldn’t handle it. I don’t know if they can do that at the Aviva?
“One thing we haven’t come up against in the first three games is a kicker of the quality of Conor Murray. He puts the ball so high he gives his chasers so much time to get there. Against Wales and for the Lions he was outstanding. He doesn’t look like a great player but he is one.
“The back three are a good blend. [Keith] Earls pops up all over the place. Stockwell is big and strong. [Rob] Kearney is reliable. He’ll catch the ball and run straight at the oppo and give them a target.
“Scotland will have to play better than they did against England because Ireland will be a lot better than England were. Scotland have the Murrayfield crowd to lift them at home but it will be the opposite effect in Dublin. Whenever the ball went into the air against Wales there was a roar from the crowd so the Aviva is a very emotional place for Irishmen.
“I am a wee bit worried we have a fortress at home and the players play to that (but) we still have to prove ourselves away from home. I think we are capable of beating Ireland but we need to get into our game quickly and not be afraid of playing the game we want to play.”