Thursday 8 December 2016

If Scots can limit early damage, don't rule out surprise end to close contest

Ben Kay

Published 27/02/2011 | 05:00

Scotland went into their game against Wales at Murrayfield in the last round of the Six Nations in buoyant mood after a sequence of strong performances and results, but what a difference a poor defeat makes. They will be firm underdogs against Ireland today, despite home advantage, and any old win will do.

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Their coach Andy Robinson -- my old boss with England -- talked his players up before the Wales game and rightly so. He wanted them to express themselves and play with width, but all he got was a reminder of how tough and unforgiving an environment the Six Nations is.

Andy does not have the depth of resources that he enjoyed with England and his biggest challenge with Scotland is to get some consistency instead of the one-off displays for which they have become known over the years.

What they have to erase this afternoon is a habit of conceding points early: both France and Wales had scored a try this year before all the spectators had taken their seats.

Scotland did rally against France, scoring three tries, but after going 16 points down they found no way back against a Wales side even more desperate for victory. The response has been seven changes, with Chris Paterson restored at full-back, Sean Lamont coming into the midfield and new half-backs.

With Ireland summoning Ronan O'Gara back at flyhalf, I would not expect a glut of open rugby. Ireland scored three tries to France's one a fortnight ago, but they were fortunate to win in Rome and are not where they were a couple of years ago. They should have the advantage in midfield, where Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy are one of the best pairings in the world, but Scotland look to have the edge in the second row with Alastair Kellock and Richie Gray shading Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell (who would have predicted that a year ago?) and the Killer Bs are in harness again in the back row.

Ireland have not scrummaged well this season and Euan Murray, who will not play today because of his religious beliefs, must regret that the game is being played on a Sunday. The Scotland prop struggled up front against France and Wales, a consequence of not playing regular rugby this season.

Frozen out at Northampton where he lost his place to Brian Mujati, he has only been at Newcastle a couple of months.

He would have backed himself against Cian Healy and it would have been the chance for him to regain confidence. Murray has not suddenly turned into a poor scrummager: he just needs matches. But he will miss the next round of the Six Nations as well because the date with England at Twickenham is also on a Sunday.

Andy will be expecting a reaction from his players today. Lamont had strong words to say immediately after the defeat to Wales, talking about the need for players to look at themselves and describing the performance as unacceptable. There is nothing wrong with honesty, but sometimes opinions are best expressed within the confines of the squad environment.

I know from experience that is how Andy feels, a legacy of the Clive Woodward days with England where the emphasis was that we were one team and had to stick together. After England had lost to Argentina at Twickenham in 2006, I made some comments to reporters which were picked up on. I said we had become caught between two stools. We had moved away from a tight game based on collisions, to one where we had become predictable in trying to get the ball wide all the time.

My point was that we had to find a balance between tight and loose, play as a team and improve some of our decision-making. I wasn't questioning our tactics but saying that as players we hadn't implemented them. But Andy was not impressed, feeling I was having a go at the coaches. He made me apologise at the next team meeting and I am sure he has had a word with Lamont, though I know he will also appreciate his honesty.

It is a big day for Andy and his team. Scotland have not won a Six Nations match at Murrayfield, or even scored a try in one, for two years.

With the trip to Twickenham to follow, they will not want to go to face Italy in the final round needing to win to avoid the wooden spoon and a whitewash.

It could come down to kicks. Scotland have gone for the creative Ruaridh Jackson at flyhalf, but the result will be more important than the performance. I suspect the class of O'Driscoll and D'Arcy will sway a close contest.

Observer

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