If the Calcutta Cup match was the biggest test to date of the Toonaissance™ (although it’s a bit of a Vernaissance too really), Scotland passed it with flying colours.
That sort of tester comes thick and fast in the Six Nations though and this weekend the side travel to Dublin to face the only side left with a chance of a Grand Slam: Ireland. As was worryingly highlighted in Cardiff in the opening game, Scotland’s away performances are a far cry from those we’ve seen at home since the autumn and if they really want to be in with a chance of influencing the tournament outcome on the final weekend they’ve a big hill to climb to match those levels.
Of course, they aren’t alone. Away wins for any team outside of Rome are something of a rarity in the modern tournament and Scotland’s last one was at Croke Park in 2010. If we are putting records to bed, that 8 year gap for an away win (not Italy) is almost as long a margin as the “wins against England” one that we bade farewell to last weekend. Of the current team, only John Barclay has experience of that day – even if fellow Killer Bee Johnnie Beattie caught the eye with his rampaging try – and current skills coach Mike Blair was on the bench.
Scotland could also look to more recent history for a blueprint, when they ransacked Ireland in the opening game of last year’s 6 Nations then hung on grimly as Ireland slowly turned the tide. If that game had been an extra fifteen minutes longer, Scotland would have lost it but the first half finishing was spot on and matches what we saw against England, where their overall execution was far better.
If Scotland can overcome an English side very few of them had experience of winning against, at least we know with Ireland that mental hoodoo shouldn’t be there quite as much. Furthermore, the way Glasgow dismantled Munster in an all-court Pro12 final performance should also be a touchstone for inspiration. The players have familiarity, even if we have Grant Gilchrist instead of Uncle BigNaks.
Ireland have played some lovely rugby so far in the tournament but there have still been enough mis-steps – Jonny Sexton’s kicking against Wales for example – to suggest there could be a chink or two in the armour that could be exploited.
Joe Schmidt is astute enough that he’ll have figured out some flaws in Scotland’s defensive line too but John Barclay has said that Townsend introduces a new playbook for attack for every game. Innovative indeed, and harder for the opposition to guess what is coming. It is weirdly the perfect approach for a game plan in which the attack absolutely has to function – provided you can execute it. But it must require intense concentration, not to mention research. And presumably it also means that if the defence does something different to what you planned for, you have to fall back on your wits. Was that what happened in Wales?
One thing is for sure, Ireland are not going to give Scotland a pass at the breakdown as England did, and a fair amount of that could come down to the interpretation of Wayne Barnes. The fact remains that they are supremely confident at home, and unbeaten. They can almost taste that grandslam.
It won’t come into their thoughts much this week, but from Scotland’s point of view it can be seen as a dress rehearsal for their encounter in the Rugby World Cup in 2019. A win in Dublin would add massive levels of confidence heading to Yokohama; we might start creating some mental hoodoos of our own.
It seems unlikely there will be changes made to the starting XV, with no word on Tommy Seymour in today’s squad announcement suggesting he is fit to play or at least close enough that they don’t want Schmidt dusting off Kinghorn’s highlight’s reel just yet.
But that doesn’t mean that Toony hasn’t made call ups to the squad, with Richie Gray (calf), Fraser Brown (head), Zander Fagerson (foot), Alex Dunbar (thigh), Byron McGuigan (hamstring), Lee Jones (head) and Darryl Marfo (back) all recovering from injuries to be in the mix for selection from a 40 man training squad. Magnus Bradbury, John Hardie and George Horne have also been added.
Tim Visser and Rob Harley have been dropped for injury reasons, while Josh Strauss isn’t listed either. So you can stop picking Tim in your comment XVs, this week at least.
Richie Gray perhaps will come into contention on the bench. Any one of Toolis, Swinson or Gray would you feel be a worthy inclusion, but picking Gray does have a double benefit of freeing up some resources to the pro teams, both of whom are struggling a little for fit second rows.
It will also add to pressure on the front row selections thus far, with Fagerson’s addition making a tricky situation for Townsend who has seen Berghan thrive in the last two games but now also has WP Nel fit. Reid and Bhatti have also gone well and the scrum has been far from the weakness it was viewed as, but Tadhg Furlong is reported to be back in full training this week for Ireland. Calling up Darryl Marfo might do a disservice to Bhatti but don’t rule it out. Fraser Brown on the bench at hooker could make an instant difference though with McInally no longer having to reserve energy for a full 80 minutes.
So far, since the Wales game, the team has done what has been asked of them but this weekend should see a similar level of intensity without a crowd to carry them along.
And that’s before we even discuss what would be a typically Scottish (aka “arse” prediction) outcome: winning in Dublin and then losing in Rome.
Possible Scotland XV to face Ireland: Hogg, Seymour, Jones, Horne, Maitland, Russell, Laidlaw; Reid, McInally, Berghan, J Gray, Gilchrist, Barclay, Watson, Wilson.
Replacements: Bhatti, Brown, Nel, R Gray, Denton, Price, Dunbar, Kinghorn.