A SLOWLY growing momentum has taken this Scotland squad to the verge of a place in the history books. Five wins in a row – an achievement reached by Saturday’s win over Italy – is uncommon enough. Six is even rarer, having last been done 30 years ago, by the team who won the Grand Slam. Seven is unprecedented.
No pressure, then, for the players as they prepare to face up to France at Murrayfield on Sunday. Only of course there will be pressure, and they will have to find a way to deal with it, both collectively and as individuals.
For many Scots competitors and coaches, in football and other sports as much as in rugby, the way to deal with pressure is to downplay it, to insist, whatever the actual evidence, that they remain underdogs. But Sam Skinner has a different approach, one that you suspect he shares with a growing number of a playing group that is maturing rapidly and learning to have real confidence in their own abilities.
“Embrace the expectation,” the Exeter lock said yesterday when asked how to deal with the steadily rising enthusiasm for and belief in the national side. “If people believe and have confidence in us that’s only a good thing. We’ll take it in our stride.
“I don’t think we shy away from it and be nervous. The more expectation the better: we want to demand more of ourselves and we want to give back to the Scottish family as much as possible.”
The team certainly gave a lot back to their supporters in March, when they put in an outstanding performance to beat the French 28-17 – the only defeat suffered by Sunday’s opposition in this year’s Six Nations. Much was made of the way in which France contributed to their own downfall in that game, and clearly the first-half sending-off of prop Mohamed Haouas played a part in their demise. But Scotland’s incessant harrying of them was also a major factor in their inability to settle and find their best form, and Skinner is sure that, eight months on, some of the lessons taken from that match remain relevant today.
“We definitely believed we could win last time round, and we backed it up,” the 25-year-old continued. “That’s going to be the plan this weekend: to do what we did last time and back it up. If we’re physical, if we’re aggressive, I’m sure we can get the job done.
“We did our homework before we played that game and we had a physical presence in it, particularly in defence, that obviously unsettled them. Naturally that will be our plan again, and when we get the chance to attack it’s about executing that in the right way and at the right time.
“I think that’s something we did well the last time we played them: when we got into the 22 we converted well. Most games are won in the same way aren’t they? It’s being strong in defence – and France have a lot of threats, we know that – but we’ll be looking to repeat what we did last time and then making sure that when we get our chance to attack we’ve got to be clinical in that area.”
It remains to be seen, of course, just how big a role Skinner will have in the Group B game. He came off the bench in last week’s win over Italy, as he did against France in March, but has yet to start a Test this year. Being able to slot in at blindside as well as at lock gives him a versatility which may at times seem best suited for a place among the replacements, which may be why he now leans towards the latter position.
“I play in a few positions and I don’t want to be bracketed as that sort of player who is jack of all trades, master of none. I’m trying to push for the second-row position. Obviously the guys ahead of me in that position at the minute are playing really well, and there’s a lot of competition in and around all positions, really. But I’m looking to go for the second row, and all I can do is keep trying to push when I get a chance to come off the bench.”
One of the locks ahead of Skinner is his Exeter team-mate Jonny Gray, while Scott Cummings has matured rapidly since being given the chance to partner his old Glasgow colleague. But head coach Gregor Townsend has insisted that he wants to deepen his squad over the course of the tournament, and, as Scotland go for a record-equalling sixth win in a row, he has in Skinner a man who thrives on the big occasion.
Of course, those big occasions such as the Champions Cup final win over Racing 92 and the Premiership victory against Wasps feel very different during these days of no spectators. In a sense, the lack of pressure caused by the absence of fans is the problem, and Skinner admitted that he had to psych himself up both before and during those games in a different way than he normally would for a match in front of a capacity crowd, and that a nearly empty Murrayfield will be a factor that has to be dealt with on Sunday.
“The game could be less intense and physical and you’ve got to make sure you’re up to those levels as if there were 65,000 people at Murrayfield cheering you on. There are positives and negatives. But personally I’ve had to adapt myself. You feel yourself breathing more, you hear the collisions more, and you have to get through that. Most boys have adjusted to it by now.
“It’s only human to keep reminding yourself ‘How would this feel if everyone was here?’ After the [Premiership final at Twickenham] it definitely felt bittersweet. It was awesome to get the win and realise what we’d done as a collective, but we couldn’t share it with friends and family and also the supporters. You don’t see their emotion. It’s an interesting thing; hopefully I look back in years to come and appreciate as much as I would have done if there were 80,000 people there.”
And of course if Scotland do make it six in a row, the achievement at a near-empty national stadium will be every bit as substantial as it would have been in front of a capacity crowd.