Tuesday 26 September 2017

Scots need to be greater than sum of their parts

Scott Johnson will be hoping Scotland can win in Dublin for only the second time since 1988
Scott Johnson will be hoping Scotland can win in Dublin for only the second time since 1988
David Kelly

David Kelly

When Scotland clinched their last Five Nations championship in 1999, they had high hopes of beginning the new century and the new six-team championship in a similar vein.

They would, however, lose their opening match, a glorious introduction to the enlarged festivities for Italy, who pooped the partying Scots in Rome.

It would become a familiar trend in all but one of the next 13 editions; bar a shock 2006 win against France in Murrayfield, the Scots would lose all of their opening-day bows. You could call this predilection towards giddy excitement followed by perennial disappointment, as some doleful Scots do, premature 'ejockulation.'

After their third-placed finish last season and a decent, if familiarly fruitless Heineken Cup adventure from their two clubs, Scotland are once more eyeing up a positive campaign, but the underlying fundamentals disabuse any potential for optimism.

Their interim coach Scott Johnson, he of the natty one-line quips and middle-aged surfer dude quiff, is overseeing his last campaign before handing the reins to Vern Cotter, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's erstwhile boss at Clermont. Unfortunately, instead of spending his birthday yesterday running the rule over Scotland's final training session before today's team selection, Cotter was stranded in France, detained unavoidably by family business.

Thus was removed, in one fell swoop, a key hands-on influence in attempting to hoodwink the Ireland coach by dint of his intimate knowledge of his former masterful apprentice. Given that Cotter emerged triumphant in his last two meetings with Schmidt – admittedly with an exceptional side in Clermont – Scotland could have done with his presence this week, ahead of his prospective employment on a full-time basis.

"He was going to come across, but that is not going to happen now," according to Johnson. "He may come across at some stage, but he's got a family issue now, so that's fine. Let him do his thing and we'll do ours."

Aside from the coaching worries – will the players feel the enigmatic Johnson is slightly tarred with being a lame duck, given his imminent move upstairs? – there are enough problems on the pitch to send a chill up even the most resilient kilt-wearer.

Whether Worcester Warriors chose log-cutting for their team-building exercise as a tribute in the year of Monty Python's reunion we shall never know.

What we do know is that Euan Murray is neither a lumberjack, nor is he okay; he damaged a thumb while attempting to hack some wood and will miss the entire championship.

His obligatory withdrawal from Sunday service due to his religious beliefs would have ruled him out of this weekend's clash in any case, but his absence shines a light on the paucity of options in an area where Ireland, in just one of many stark contrasts to the Scots, have emerged with a sudden surfeit of choice.

Moray Low from Glasgow will be named at No 3 today with Geoff Cross, backed by less than a half of competitive rugby this term behind him, the unsatisfactory back-up; Cian Healy and Jack McGrath will be ravenous.

"We've got to find out about them," says Johnson, puzzlingly, of a tighthead pair with five years and 46 caps in the bank. "Not everyone is blessed with depth at tighthead prop," he said more candidly. "We're just going to have to weather that one."

The storms continue at out-half; Schmidt's quandaries merely lie in his reserve option – does he pick a habitual starter who doesn't regularly goal-kick or a habitual goal-kicker who doesn't regularly start?

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Johnson has a different, if related problem, except it refers to his starting contenders – Glasgow duo Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir are not even certain of their club place, let alone their international status.

The likelihood is that Jackson – a more reliable place-kicker than Weir – will start the championship, but he may not even finish this game, let alone the championship, especially as scrum-half Greig Laidlaw is an expert place-kicker.

"The form of both Jacko and Duncan has been good in aspects of their game," notes Johnson, who would dearly crave the certainty Johnny Sexton provides his opposition coach. Greig Tonks, from Edinburgh, is another who has been tossed into the selection mix.

"It is consistency we are looking for. We talk about the consistency of performance we want within the squad, but that is a position that is probably a bit more important than it is consistent."

Even captain Kelly Brown has been told in no uncertain terms that his place is not guaranteed, with viable options in Chris Fusaro and Ross Rennie challenging the captain's eminence.

Scotland have won just once in Dublin since 1988, the 23-20 post Grand Slam mugging of Declan Kidney's team in 2010 also representing their sole away win in an astonishingly otherwise barren run of 17 games.

Ireland have only lost once first up – against Wales in 2004 – so surely logic dictates a comfortable kick-start to Schmidt's championship career.

Then again, the wily Schmidt, whose earliest memories as a boy were of listening transfixed with his father in another hemisphere as the Scots trumped England to win the 1990 championship, will know one thing for sure – no matter how unsuspecting, one should always beware the thistle's sting.

Irish Independent

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