Scotland coach wary of Ireland’s ‘dominant brand of rugby’

Scotland's Dan Parks was the hero of Scotland's last victory in Dublin in 2010.
Scotland's Dan Parks was the hero of Scotland's last victory in Dublin in 2010.
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Since the bracing reality check of Cardiff on the opening weekend of this year’s NatWest Six Nations the two home wins which followed have done little to deflect scrutiny from Scotland’s dreadful away record in the competition.

That is only going to crank up this week as the Scots face a potentially defining showdown with pacesetters Ireland at the Aviva Stadium and look to prove that they can make the breakthrough from what has become an impressive home record, capped by the Calcutta Cup glory last weekend, and finally get a big one to stick on the road.

The wretchedness of the Scottish away record is rammed home, as if needed, by the observation that the surprise win in Dublin 20 March 2010 is, arguably, the only truly meaningful victory outside of Edinburgh since the Six Nations began in 2000.

There have been a few wins in Rome, with the one under Vern Cotter two years ago stopping a long losing rot and sparking a bit of much-needed momentum. But beyond that, the only other away triumph of any note was the last win in Cardiff 16 years ago, which descended into little more than a bounce game between two sides at the end of 
disappointing campaigns.

So the only time Scotland have managed to dig out a win when it really mattered, even if it was just to avoid a Wooden Spoon, was the dramatic win at Croke Park against a Triple Crown-chasing Ireland who were playing their last game at the spiritual home of Gaelic sport before moving into the state-of-the-art Aviva which was built on the site of the old Lansdowne Road.

Growing up watching rugby in the late 1980s and 1990s beating Ireland home and away, or at least not losing, became the yearly banker before the Scots were stunned by the onslaught of the emergence of Brian O’Driscoll and a new golden generation in that first Six Nations in 2000.

Scotland coach Mike Blair took part off the bench eight years ago in a 23-20 victory which was the first in Ireland since an Alan Tait try helped eke out a 17-16 win at Lansdowne Road in 1998.

Johnnie Beattie scored a fine try and stand-off Dan Parks had his finest hour in a Scotland jersey, pulling the strings and kicking the points, including the last-gasp matchwinner from the touchline.

“It was some game. Ireland had a lot on it,” recalled Blair. “They were going for a Triple Crown and it was the last game at Croke Park. We hadn’t had the most successful season. It was a great experience as the team pulled together and Dan Parks had a really good game.

“I remember Dan had a few drinks after the game and was commentating on it at 2am in the morning in the team room. Talking himself up a lot. He had a fantastic game and had incredible nerve to kick at the end. It was a great 
occasion.”

A similarly close outcome in the Scots’ favour would be swiftly snapped up right now as that elusive big away win is craved as the perfect follow-up to the joyous scenes at BT Murrayfield last weekend and the rousing 25-13 win over England.

“This will be at least as tough as facing England at home. Ireland play a very dominant brand of rugby,” said Blair.

“They’ve been very successful with it and will be firm favourites for the game. England, the second-best team in the world, that was a big challenge, but this week is something a bit different.

“One key thing about them is their relentless phase play. Their ability to get into your 22 and suffocate you. They will stay there until they take points away.

“They’ve done that at international level, obviously, but you also look at Leinster. That’s part of their game, as you saw when they had I think 42 or 43 phases against Exeter. And they have similar personnel here.

“Ireland did it well against Wales. Whenever they got into that gold zone, that finish zone, they were coming up with points. So that’s going to be a big focus for us, preventing that from happening.”

One of Blair’s main roles is working closely with the players in his old position of scrum-half and he was delighted to see the inclusion of George Horne, pictured right, brother of centre Peter, in the new expanded squad after working closely with the 22-year-old in his dual role with Glasgow Warriors.

Ali Price has also bounced back from a difficult day in Cardiff and, at the other end of the experience spectrum, is Greig Laidlaw who has enjoyed a stellar few weeks, and was starring again with his club, Clermont Auvergne, at the weekend.

Blair was full of praise for his former Edinburgh team-mate.

“I don’t know if it’s the right term but he’s got a great voice to him,” said the coach. “People listen when Greig speaks. He’s got a calm authority about him.

“That is a big plus point for us. We’ve also seen that Ali Price can do a great job off the bench for us, as well. He had a fantastic autumn, he has a slightly different role. But it’s brilliant that the two players, although they’re different in age terms, are going to learn a lot from each other. For Ali to be around Greig and see how he talks to players, gets the best out of them, is great for Ali at this stage in his career.

“But also for Greig to see the speed that Ali is able to get in the game, the instinctive nature of his game, that’s great for Greig.”