A legion of Scottish rugby fans in Dublin this weekend will be able to say they were there when the UK and (Republic of) Ireland split ties as members of the European Union but, more importantly, they will be yearning to say they were there when the Scotland rugby team bounced back from adversity and proved a point by winning in the Irish capital for the first time in a decade.
The Finn Russell fiasco, which has led to one of Scotland’s two world-class players being left out for this afternoon’s Guinness Six Nations opener at Aviva Stadium for a drink-related disciplinary breach, was the last thing under-the-cosh national head coach Gregor Townsend needed heading into a make-or-break campaign.
Scottish sporting history is littered with occasions, however, when adversity and a backs-against-the-wall mindset has played in its favour.
The other world-class performer at Townsend’s disposal today against an Irish team who have lost only once at home in the Six Nations in the past five years is his newly- appointed captain Stuart Hogg.
The 27-year-old full-back, who was player of the tournament in this oldest and greatest rugby championship in both 2016 and 2017, finds himself in the position of guiding Adam Hastings through what will be a daunting challenge.
You can’t help but note the echoes of 23-year-old Glasgow stand-off Adam’s dad Gavin performing a similar role when he skippered Townsend from a similar vantage point in the mid-1990s.
“Adam has really trained well over the last couple of weeks. He’s confident in his own ability, I’m confident in his ability to drive us round the field. We’re looking forward to it,” said Hogg in Dublin yesterday after overseeing his first Six Nations ‘Captain’s Run’ since being appointed as skipper. “We’re fully aware of the challenges that are coming our way. We’re aware of that,” added Hogg as he considered the challenge of facing a side who four months ago tore the Scots apart in Yokohama and left their World Cup in shreds.
“They have got some world-class individuals, world-class coaching staff. That’s a huge challenge for us as a nation.
“That’s the reason you picked up the ball as a kid. You want to be involved in these massive games and I truly believe that if we get everything right tomorrow we can win a Test match.”
A new captain, adjustments to Townsend’s backroom staff, with Steve Tandy joining as defence coach and former France prop Pieter De Villiers brought in as scrum coach, and ten changes made to the team which ended the World Cup.
If a plan’s broke, fix it, and Townsend can’t be accused of not following that philosophy.
Scotland played some excellent rugby last year, notably in that unforgettable Twickenham fightback on the final weekend of the last Six Nations. There were other flashes, as there has been for a few years now, of the potential this Scotland team has. The results don’t lie, though, and a fifth-place finish and pool-stage World Cup exit has everyone on warning.
Nobody can deny that 2020 has thrown up a challenging fixture list, from the Dublin cauldron, straight into a Calcutta Cup week, past the Six Nations on into a summer Test series against world champions South Africa and the mighty New Zealand. Greatness is forged in the intensity of being challenged, though, and the Scots fortunate enough to be pulling on a dark blue jersey this afternoon have an opportunity to mark their names in the nation’s proud rugby history.
Hogg feels there is a refreshed feeling within the camp and believes recent results should be forgotten.
“I feel we’re in a very good place. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve had a good look at ourselves,” said Hogg.
“We can’t change what’s happened in the past, we’ve very much in control of what happens in the future and we’re hoping to start well tomorrow.
“We’ve got a new defence coach, new scrum coach, new philosophy in the way we’re going to defend. And it’s been refreshing and exciting for us.
“The big thing for me is we’re confident in each other’s ability and as a collective unit and we’re excited for challenges coming our way tomorrow afternoon.”