Saturday 17 March 2018

Resurgent opponents are learning to run again

We must be wary of a team with records to set straight.

Scotland's interim defence coach, Dean Ryan and interim head coach, Scott Johnston (right)
Scotland's interim defence coach, Dean Ryan and interim head coach, Scott Johnston (right)
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

There's something odd about the current Scotland situation. It's not that they are all excited about the prospect of putting together back-to-back wins in the Six Nations for the first time since the Foot and Mouth match in 2001 – a scary stat regardless of which side of the fence you're on this afternoon – rather it's the way they are looking at themselves.

Eight years ago, Matt Williams took over in Murrayfield and started by telling the players that their basic skills were brutal, and not to be expecting too many happy days out until they had improved dramatically. At the time the Scots weren't in the mood for downbeat talk, and after three wins from 17 Tests under Williams the mood hadn't changed from either coach or players. When his confidentiality clause had expired, Williams said that there was a natural antipathy among the Scots to outsiders coming in to run their teams.

This may not be strictly accurate. From 2009-2012 they had Andy Robinson running the show, and despite traditionally poor results he got on well enough, and now there is another Aussie at the helm, in Scott Johnson, with another Englishman at his side, in Dean Ryan.

The curious bit is that Ryan announced on arrival that there was no set of circumstances which would turn a temporary gig into a longer-term operation – he will be going back to Sky Sports at the end of the season – yet set about telling the Scots how awful they were and how many things that needed fixing. Echoes of Mattie, but from a bloke just passing through?

Unlike the Williams experience however, the chord Ryan struck didn't sound off-key to his new audience. Eight years ago, loosehead Tom Smith was one of those least enchanted with Williams. Ryan Grant, the incumbent at number one, is in a different place with the interim forwards' coach.

"Dean believed that some of the core things were missing in our game and we had to get it right," he says. "That was the problem. We were trying to run before we could walk."

Ryan had a bit of an edge to him as a player and he pointed out to the Scots that they are a bit too rounded for his liking.

"After the England game, we were desperate," Grant says. "Desperate. We got bullied against England and afterwards we sat down and said this doesn't happen to us again. We had a point to prove against Italy. We had to prove that we're not a team that can be bullied and it took that hiding from England to get us to that point.

"We spoke a lot through the week about how we are perceived by other teams and the words

'Same old' came up a lot. Same old Scotland. And that's exactly what we'll be if we don't front up against Ireland, we'll be the team that got beat, then got a good result, then got beat again. We want to shake that off.

"We play against these boys week in, week out in the Rabo and it's going to be tough. It's down to us. We want to be *****. That's what you need to be if you're going to win Test matches."

Good taste prevents us from replacing any of the asterisks on the quote above but you get the message. Well, actually there's more. The Scots want to epitomise nastiness especially because they're dealing today with a bunch of rugby crims.

"I know about that," he says of Ireland's approach to the breakdown. "Played against these boys many times. You can't fault them for it because it's only cheating if you get caught. They're great at playing on the edge and they've got such a great pool of players to choose from and they're always tough."

That's how the bookies see it. Despite that pool being short nine players, eight of whom would certainly be in the match-day 23, those who set the odds reckon it is still deep enough to beat a team who have been in the bottom two in the last six seasons. For Scotland, Tier One status is incongruous.

Still, where previously they could scarcely buy a try, in this campaign they have managed already to skate past last season's total of four. Their set-piece stats and concession of penalties are roughly on a par with Ireland's; they have by comparison a significantly bigger pack; and at last they have a back three with real attacking potential.

The issue however will be at halfback. There is nothing to suggest Paddy Jackson is ready for Test rugby, and it's as well that his opposite number, Ruaridh Jackson, has already established that he's not. Earlier this season Glasgow dropped him to play for Dundee.

Maybe it's an illustration of where the two countries see themselves now but had an Ireland outhalf made as many basic errors as Jackson did against Italy, never mind England, there would be an outcry.

As it is, the volume here has been raised all week over Ulster's Paddy starting ahead of Munster's Ronan. Right decision to drop O'Gara; wrong man to replace him. It should have been Ian Madigan.

It's unlikely there will be respect for the kickers in Murrayfield this afternoon – it's a tedious and self-absorbed custom anyway – but when Paddy Jackson addresses his first shot there will be prayerful silence at home. If it goes over, Ireland will scrape home. If not, the Scots will be celebrating the glory of succession.

Irish Independent

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