SCOTLAND’S international year will come full circle tomorrow [Saturday] when they return to Dublin to take on Ireland with the aim of gaining some revenge for the 12-19 loss suffered at the Aviva Stadium in their first game of 2020 way back in February.
There is a perception – certainly on this side of the water – that Scotland have made significant progress in terms of becoming a harder team to score points against and therefore to beat during the last nine months, while Ireland have stalled a bit during that period as new head coach Andy Farrell has struggled to impose his own DNA on the side.
There is some evidence to support both those theories, but neither has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
From Scotland’s perspective, a run of five victories on the bounce – including France at Murrayfield and Wales on the road – was a source of encouragement, but soaring expectations were brought back into check when the French returned to Edinburgh last month to boss the physical battle and keep their discipline on this occasion for a well-deserved victory (regardless of how often head coach Gregor Townsend and his players insisted it was only a one-score match).
Ireland, meanwhile, may not have set the heather alight this Autumn, but as assistant coach Mike Blair pointed out earlier today [Friday], their record is hardly disastrous.
“Georgia obviously played really well in difficult conditions last week to keep the game really close, they played England at Twickenham who are one of the form teams in the world at the moment, and they had a 20-point win over Wales – so, what I’m reading about Ireland in the media doesn’t really match-up with what I am seeing,” he said.
“This Ireland team – you look down the team-sheet and it’s a quality team. It’s a mixture of guys who’ve been there for years and some young talent coming through, so I think they’ll be confident. With the selection they’ve got and playing at the Aviva, I think they’ll be looking forward to the game as much as we are.”
“Remember that Jonny Sexton has been out for these games as well and he’s been a huge part of what this Irish team is about,” added the former Scotland scrum-half, in a nod to the fact that the talismanic Irish playmaker will be back in the 10 jersey tomorrow.
In contrast, Scotland will be onto their fifth stand-off of the Autumn by the time the match kicks-off, with Finn Russell and Adam Hastings injured, Stuart Hogg back in his customary full-back slot and Duncan Weir dropped, leaving Jaco van der Walt making his debut against 94 cap Sexton.
Scotland will also be without Hamish Watson – arguably their most consistently excellent forward during the last five years – who has been rested. Jamie Ritchie has shifted to open-side and is a more than able replacement, but Blade Thomson coming in at blindside still has some work to do repay the faith Townsend has shown in him these last two months.
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Townsend admitted when naming this team on Thursday that he had made a few selection calls which he might not have had it been a Six Nations match, proving that some international games are more important than others – but with a first win in Dublin in ten years up for grabs, this is far from just a chuck-about to bring the curtain down on an elongated Autumn window, which was designed to kick-start the international game but which has failed to capture the public’s imagination.
“Ireland have picked their best 23, definitely their best starting 15, so that’s a challenge in itself,” insisted Scotland captain Stuart Hogg. “But we want to take on the best Irish team possible, because we believe we can beat Ireland’s best.
“A huge part of the game that let us down last time we were over here in February was our breakdown work,” he continued. “We left ourselves short a few times and got turned over at crucial moments in the game. That’s something we’ve looked at since then. I believe we’re getting better, and tomorrow is going to be another challenge for us.
“If we get our breakdown right, defend really well, and we take our opportunities when they’re on offer, then we’ll give ourselves every chance of winning. We know it’s going to be really tough, but we’re ready and excited to go out there.
“It’s going to be a huge test for the boys up front to deliver good quality set-piece ball and for our backs to express ourselves, but we’re in a good place so bring on tomorrow.
“Some of the boys haven’t seen their families for over five weeks, and [forwards coach] Pieter de Villiers hasn’t been home for over two months, so we’ve made a lot of sacrifices to be in this position and we want to finish on a high,” he added.
“This group has bonded well off the field and has become a family in our own little bubble, so we want to go out there, express ourselves, play the brand of rugby we know we can play, and hopefully make memories on and off the field.”
Scotland’s lack of attacking verve this Autumn has been lamented as the unfortunate flip-side of their new-found pragmatism, but Blair insisted the ambition to cut loose at the right time is still there, although whether that is going to be possible in tricky conditions this weekend remains to be seen.
“It’s about balance,” said Blair. “At times we maybe feel we’ve gone too far one way and times we’ve gone too far the other way.
“A lot of the decision-making is down to the players. We’ll discuss potential opportunities or kick strategy that might give us back better ball but obviously there are also times to get our exciting runners like Darcy [Graham], Duhan [van der Merwe] and Hoggy into the game.
“Defences in world rugby are more on top at the moment and more time is being spent on that. It’s harder to break teams down but we still need to back the quality we’ve got to do that.”
Hogg was slightly more bullish. “We’ve all been involved in games that were hugely exciting with people making line breaks and scoring tries for fun, but sometimes we haven’t won those games, so sometimes you have to win ugly,” he asserted.
“We know that we are capable of scoring tries but I don’t care how we play as long as we are winning Test matches.
“It might not be to everyone’s taste because they want to see livelier rugby and line-breaks and offloads and that kind of thing, but it’s all about who doesn’t crack first. It’s about doing the basic things time and time again, and making sure we are winning.”