By Graeme Acheson of Rugby4Cast
Let’s not beat around the bush. It could be a difficult year, but is it ever not? Scotland are much improved in recent times, but are still some way off the big three of England, Ireland and Wales when it comes to Six Nations success. Given the cycle of home and away matches Scotland will always struggle to win more than two matches in a year.
In one year they have England and France at home, with Wales and Ireland away; the next they have England and France away, and Wales and Ireland at home. Throw in an occasional loss to Italy and you can see why the Six Nations has been slim pickings for Scotland for many a year.
So how does this year look? Well, our prediction Algorithm has this as the slightly easier of Scotland’s two-year cycles. Scotland are good enough to expect to beat Italy away, and France at home has become a bit of a banker for Scotland recently, with the Scots winning the last three home matches against the French. The Algorithm currently has Scotland to win this match by 5 points and win two matches overall.
BEYOND THE NUMBERS: Personally, I am worried about the French match. Individually the French squad look brilliant. And with Shaun Edwards – who brought defensive nous and hard-headedness to Wales for more than a decade – in the coaching staff I feel that they could spring a long-awaited heist on the Six Nations. The Algorithm – which has long been proven wise against my own predictions – disagrees, giving them just a 4% chance of winning the title.
From a Scottish perspective, given the match is the fourth of five, at least we will know more about the capabilities of this French squad when the match comes around.
A third win?
And the other matches? Well, this is also the year that England visit Murrayfield. Despite the fact that England are the strongest of the Six Nations sides (and have been for some time – see below for how team strength has fluctuated over time), the English rarely have won by much in Murrayfield.
Indeed in the 10 matches there have been in the Six Nations England have only won five of them, by an average margin of 5 points. Given the history of this match, and especially after the shenanigans of last year, Scotland will always have half a chance, and it is here that Scotland should look for their third win.
Ireland and Wales away are (likely) a bridge too far for Scotland at the moment – they have only won once in Dublin and Cardiff in Six Nations history (2010 Dublin and 2002 Cardiff) and given the rather heavy defeats that have been inflicted in recent years, I am not filled with optimism for these matches.
A fourth win? The Cliche of Momentum…
What Six Nations article would be complete without the oft-used variable of momentum. I would put forward that in Scotland’s case it is perhaps better described as an absence of desperation rather than a case of genuine momentum – should they win an early match, then the pressure of desperately scraping a final round win is avoided.
From this perspective, the ordering of the fixtures is relatively kind. The winnable fixtures sandwiched between the difficult ones. The best-case scenario would clearly be a win in Dublin, but given the likelihood of that is low (16% according to the Algorithm), a solid performance and avoiding a hammering would be the next best thing. Something to build on heading into round 2. If the French do us a favour and beat England (conveniently ignoring the potential meaning this has for Scotland in round 4) then we can look to perhaps sneak another win against England at home and keep the Calcutta Cup for a third year (something that hasn’t happened since 1970-1972).
Scotland would then be looking ahead to the prospect of two eminently winnable matches without the desperation of having them be ‘must-win’ matches. Faced with this, the Scottish players under Hastings/Russell (and let’s not get started on that right now…) would surely revert to the free-flowing rugby we have become used to in the good times, and comfortably beat the Italians away and France at home. We will enter the final weekend of the Six Nations on three wins and one loss. In this (dream) situation England and France are in a similar position having lost at least one match (to Scotland). Ireland and Wales will also almost certainly have lost to the English in Twickenham. You can see where this is going …
Yes, ladies and gentlemen. I’ve thrown logic, reason and The Algorithm out the window. It wasn’t where I was going when I started the article, believe me. But we now find ourselves in the situation below.
Admittedly, even this in this fanciful situation, Scotland would still not be the favourites for the title. Ireland visit Paris in round 5, which would be by no means guaranteed, but even if France win, England play Italy in the final weekend, and that is rarely anything other than the full 5 bonus point hammering. But, stranger things have happened. Look at Scotland in Twickenham last year.
Back to reality
Let’s be real. The above situation is very unlikely. The Algorithm gives Scotland just a 3% chance of winning the Six Nations and a 7% chance of second (see below for the full spectrum of possibilities). Realistically, the best Scotland can hope for is a fairly long shot at third, but a more grounded goal would be fourth, with two solid wins and no absolute hammerings. I’d take that if it was offered right now.
But I’ve only gone and done it now. I’m once again fully invested in the dream. And it will make the comedown all the harder this weekend after Scotland received a 50 point drilling from the Irish.
For a more realistic take on the Six Nations and analysis where Graeme doesn’t completely lose all sense of reason, please visit www.rugby4cast.com. Predictions, histories, form guides will all be updated as the tournament progresses. Be sure to check for updates as the results come in.