IF an uneasy balance between hope and trepidation is the usual state of Scotland supporters on the eve of the Six Nations, this year, surely, the latter emotion prevails. Even before Finn Russell was excluded from the opening match against Ireland, we had reasons to be fearful. Four months on from a traumatic Rugby World Cup, we have no evidence yet that the national team has recovered from that tournament and discovered a new lease of life. All that we know has changed is the retirement of three key players, John Barclay, Tommy Seymour and Greig Laidlaw, the addition to the squad of some new men who may or may not be involved on Saturday week in Dublin, and a reshuffle in the coaching team.
No matter who Gregor Townsend selects in his matchday 23, will those four months really have been time enough for Scotland to learn the lessons of their 27-3 loss to the Irish in their opening pool game? In any case, learning the lessons is not always the same thing as working out how to put them into practice: you can understand why you lost a match but be wholly unable to reverse the result next time around.
Yet needless to say, the players themselves have little or no time for such querulous quibbles. There will always be an element of nervousness about any team as a big tournament approaches, but for Townsend’s squad, determination is the key factor. Determination to set the record straight against Ireland, and to prove collectively that they are a better team than they showed in Japan.
“Obviously we know we owe them one from the way we played in the World Cup, so we know the areas of the game that we need to be better in, and we’re starting to build for that already,” was how Edinburgh lock Grant Gilchrist put it, speaking at Oriam earlier this week before the news broke about the loss of Russell. “We’re one day in [to the squad gathering] but already we know what we’re focusing on and the size of the challenge that awaits in Dublin.”
They owe Ireland one, and they owe themselves one too, according to Gilchrist. Scotland know they did not do themselves justice at the World Cup, and if they are to have anything like a successful Six Nations, they will need a far more competitive performance in the opening game.
“As a group we know we weren’t good enough, it’s as simple as that. It’s a new campaign and we’re a new group, but for the guys that were involved the last time we know it wasn’t good enough the last time we played them. That really affected massively our World Cup campaign the way we started, so we know the areas where we need to be better against Ireland when we start again, and it’s straight to work to make sure we can get that right for two weeks’ time.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on our defence, especially with a new defence coach coming in,” Gilchrist continued, referring to the recruiting of Steve Tandy in succession to Matt Taylor. “Thinking back to that game, certainly the kicking game, controlling territory and playing in the right areas is going to be huge against Ireland.
“We probably overplayed against them, which has happened the last couple of times when we’ve played into their hands by overplaying in our own half, and then giving them what they want, so we have to be smart. That’s something we’ve been building on. We know we need to be harder to beat, and that we can’t be conceding the number of points we were in the World Cup.”
A new approach
New coaches usually need some time to make an impact, especially assistant coaches given they are not in a position to dictate changes. But Tandy has already made his mark, according to Gilchrist. “There have been changes straightaway, and that’s obviously refreshing as players because I think Tatsy [Taylor] was a great defence coach for Scotland over the time that he was here, but a change in philosophy is always refreshing for players.
“This is something completely new, and it’s been completely clear from the start what we’re about, and it’s different. We’re working on imposing ourselves in a different way defensively and hoping that the work we’re going to put in over the next couple of weeks is going to put us in a place to showcase that against Ireland.”
Perhaps because of the freshness that Tandy has brought, Gilchrist does not believe there is any extra pressure on Scotland this year, insisting that that squad always feel the burden of expectation in any case. “No, I don’t think so,” he added. “There should always be a pressure with representing Scotland in a Six Nations. Any time I’ve ever come into camp I’ve thought straight away we should feel uncomfortable, wanting to do well for our supporters.”
At 29, Gilchrist is one of the senior figures in the squad, accustomed to forming part of a solid second-row partnership either with Glasgow’s Jonny Gray or with his Edinburgh team-mate Ben Toolis, who this week signed a new contract with the capital team. He has captained the national team before, and might have had the honour far more frequently – injury denied him the role in the 2014 Autumn Tests, for example.
Hogg as leader
That seniority leaves Gilchrist well placed to comment on the different qualities of the captains he has served with, and in the case of current skipper Stuart Hogg he believes there has been little alteration to how things are done. “I don’t there’s been much change – he’s been a leader in this team for a long time.
“So I think it’s business as usual. He’s spoken to the boys and always speaks well, as he had done down the years. There’s maybe a little bit more onus on him but there’s good leadership around him. Certainly he’s developed as a leader over the past four or five years.
“I’m sure he won’t want to be serious all the time but he’s definitely a guy who takes his rugby very seriously. Anybody who has ever trained or played with him knows that. When you’re off, you’re off and it’s important we have a good time off the field. That togetherness is important, but with Hoggy and the rest of the boys we switch on when we’re in a rugby situation and are ready to take things on board from the coaches.”