THERE are no prizes on offer for guessing what will be uppermost in the minds of the Scotland coaching team over the coming days. After a chastening defeat in Cardiff was followed by two triumphs at BT Murrayfield, the prime concern of Gregor Townsend, Dan McFarland and colleagues will be how to reproduce the team’s home form on the road when they travel to Ireland next weekend.
Whether we are talking about the PRO14 play-offs or the Six Nations Championship, it seems that the greater the intensity of the match, the greater the home advantage. Many of the most innovative minds in sporting history have tried to work out how to nullify that advantage, but it has always proven to be easier said than done.
If you have a team that is far superior to those around it, fine: problem solved. But in a competition such as the Six Nations, where this season at least all the sides except Italy are pretty close in terms of ability, the conundrum remains.
Unsurprisingly, when he spoke yesterday after a national squad training session at Oriam, forwards coach McFarland was not about to offer a detailed explanation of what he and Townsend plan to do over the coming days to help prepare their players for next Saturday’s visit to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. But given how comprehensively those players got the better of England at Murrayfield, there is certainly no doubt that they have the ability to beat Ireland too. The uncertainty is whether they can get into the right state of mind to make the most of that ability.
“First and foremost the away form is something that has to be addressed,” McFarland said. “We did not play well in Wales, clearly.
“But there are ways of going about that. One is the mental side which we’ll certainly be talking about, the second is making sure we have a play going in there you’re confident in and you believe is going to win it for you. Those are the two strands we’re taking forward over the next 10 days in preparation for the Ireland game.”
Asked if the 34-7 loss in Cardiff had helped the coaching team identify factors that might explain the difference in standards between Scotland’s home and away performances, McFarland said yes. Asked if he wanted to discuss those factors with the media, he unsurprisingly said no. What he did say was that, while the camp is a very positive place after the Calcutta Cup win, the coaches would take an unflinchingly realistic look at how to deal with the challenge of winning in Dublin.
“We’ve certainly got to be positive, and that comes across when we say we are a good team. At the same time the challenges that face you have to be recognised. So there’s no point in building a bubble that ignores the reality of the challenges.
“If you understand the level of challenge you are facing, particularly away from home in the Six Nations, then you can really begin to put together a plan that says, yeah, this is a steep hill that we have to climb but it’s a hill we have a plan to be able to summit. Then you build mentally for that, saying you recognise the challenge but we believe we can do the job. But we have to do these things in order to achieve that.
“If you believe in what you’re capable of doing, the pressure is on you to go out and produce that consistently. The victory is great, we really enjoyed that, and it will be a good memory for us. It moves on. We’re preparing for Ireland now: that’s the next challenge.”
As forwards coach, and as someone who fulfilled the same role with Connacht before joining Townsend at Glasgow, McFarland knows as well as anyone how dangerous the Irish pack can be, especially in the maul. But, while he is formulating plans to snuff out that danger, he also warned that Ireland are a versatile team who can win games in a number of ways.
“Ireland pose a really big challenge up front. Over a number of years they’ve put together a pack that is really disciplined, and in terms of detail in what they’re doing, they have good strategy, good tactics and combinations that have worked well together for a number of years. That’s our big focus now.
“Ireland are a good mauling team, but they have variety in their play, as do England – they chose at the weekend to maul on a number of occasions and that’s something we had to deal with; the lads put a lot of effort into dealing with that. It’ll be the same with Ireland, they have variety. They don’t just maul, although it is a tactic they can beat you with if you allow them, so we’ll have to be on our game again. Away from home that’s going to be tough going and we’ll have to respond to that challenge. But there are other ways Ireland can beat you; it won’t be our singular focus.”