SCOTLAND head into the shiny new Dublin home of Irish rugby for the first time tomorrow with at least one member of the squad believing that it will inspire the visitors as much as Ireland.
There is a common belief that playing away from home is more difficult and it is one backed up by results. But flanker John Barclay, preparing to start for only the second time for Scotland in the No 6 jersey tomorrow, is eager to get inside the new Aviva Stadium.
The Scotland squad touched down in Dublin yesterday and will enjoy their captain’s run at the new arena this morning with tomorrow’s game kicking off at 5pm.
Barclay said: “It’s obviously exciting to play at new stadiums and I think it helps all players. Playing at home at Murrayfield is fantastic, but I personally quite like going away to other stadiums.
“I like the Millennium Stadium and Twickenham is pretty good. Croke Park was unbelievable and I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Aviva. That’s one of the great things about being a rugby player – you get to do these things; play in different atmospheres and different cities.”
The demise of the old Lansdowne Road stadium, the oldest sports stadium in Europe dating back to 1872, marked the end of an era in traditional stadia with England, Wales, France and to a lesser extent Scotland all in vastly different stadia to those launched in the 20th century. Even relative newcomers Italy are playing in the grand 80,000-capacity Olimpico in Rome this year while the smaller, but atmospheric Flaminio is refurbished.
The original Lansdowne Road Stadium was a multi-sports venue with a cinder track for athletics, a cricket pitch, croquet green, three football pitches and facilities for archery and lawn tennis. The first rugby match was between Leinster and Munster in 1876 and in 1878 Lansdowne held its first international rugby fixture, but it was to be another 16 years before Scotland visited, Belfast being Irish rugby’s home until then.
One unique aspect that has been retained with the decision to build a new 21st century stadium on the same site was the passing underneath of the Dart train, albeit there is no great rumble and roar that used to leave one fearing for the stadium’s collapse in the past.
However, while the new Aviva with its silver wave-like roof may keep the rain off heads in a way the ends of the old Lansdowne did not, it has yet to generate the same atmosphere that was associated with the old place, or the temporary Croke Park home, where 80,000 cheering fans turned the Gaelic games venue into a world-beating theatre. Their win against Italy last month was only their fourth in ten games at home.
But, for Scotland, it will become a theatre of dreams if they can repeat their 2010 trick of lifting a disappointing Six Nations Championship with what would be a first victory in Lansdowne Road since the 17-16 nail-biter of 1998. That was a first win in five Tests and the solitary success in 12 consecutive games.
Now looking for a first victory in six, Barclay agreed that winning was everything at international level and that the taste of success was necessary to quench a worsening drouth among the players.
“That’s what we’re all striving for,” he said. “It’s hard. As players we put in a lot. It’s not just the physical toll it takes on your body, but the emotional toll in terms of the disappointment and the pressure you put yourself under.
“Then there’s all the after-match stuff, media and family. It’s hard to take, to lose three in a row [in Six Nations]; five in a row [in all]. It’s not fun.
“But the way we’re playing is the right way for the players we have. As you can see, in phases of the game we’re playing really good rugby, dominating chunks of games, but there have been lapses of concentration or dropped balls at times when I’ve felt we’ve had the opposition against the ropes.
“We’re letting teams off the hook a bit, especially France. We had them in the first 20 minutes, but through soft defensive stuff of our own we let them claw a way back into the game. You can’t do that at this level.
“There are guys putting pressure on who will be pretty annoyed that we’ve lost and they’re not in, so we need to deliver a winning performance, and not just a patchy performance that had given encouragement to the fans. Ultimately, we need to start winning games.”
With a novice in David Denton at No 8 and openside Ross Rennie older by six months but with just 14 caps, and three starts in the Six Nations, Barclay is a guiding influence to a back row that faces a major test to improve the breakdown accuracy against a physical and skilful Irish trio. The loss of the explosive Sean O’Brien yesterday to an infected foot that has failed to clear up, will be felt by Ireland, and thrusts 22-year-old Munster flanker Peter O’Mahoney into the fray in his first season as a pro.
A key figure, as always, will be the referee, and both coaches are keen to see what they consider fairness to their side from the new Kiwi in charge tomorrow. Chris Pollock is highly-rated in the Super 15 but only took charge of his first Tri Nations match last year and was a reserve at the World Cup. This will be his first Six Nations game.
So how cute the back rows are could be even more integral tomorrow than usual. Barclay certainly knows the Irish players well from club and country meetings, and is unconcerned by his switch from the usual openside berth to blindside.
“I’ve played openside my whole life and I guess you find yourself in different positions on the pitch and you’re maybe not tied up as much, but it would be stupid of me to try and play like a different player just because I’ve got a different number on my back. I think I did alright at six [against France]. I felt comfortable and I got my hands on the ball quite a lot.
“They’ve got some quality players and I’m sure they’ll be confident, but I think our back row has performed pretty well. We’ve been pretty solid in the championship, although we maybe spluttered against France in the contact area.”
He added: “They’ll be frustrated with their results. They lost first up, beat Italy convincingly and then got the draw at the weekend, and they’re missing a few guys in [Brian] O’Driscoll, [Paul] O’Connell and [Conor] Murray, though they have a lot of experienced guys.
“But it seemed to me that the French were attacking really deep and what they were doing looked a wee bit unconvincing. We will take them on up front and try to stop them getting on a roll. Once you get on a roll it’s very hard for a defence to stop you.”