Saturday 18 November 2017

Alan Quinlan: Great Scots? Don't believe the hype because Ireland's record gives us clear edge

Vern Cotter's team have made forward strides in the last year but Joe Schmidt's side should still have enough in Edinburgh

Old friends Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt will be looking for bragging rights in Murrayfield
Old friends Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt will be looking for bragging rights in Murrayfield
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter Photo: Reuters

Alan Quinlan

All eyes are on Scotland today. All the hype surrounds them, too. As the Six Nations Championship kicks off in Murrayfield, the forecasters are studying the weather as much as the form, wondering if a typical wet Edinburgh February afternoon will play into the hosts' hands.

As well as that, they are looking at Vern Cotter's team and wondering if their series of near misses will finally come to an end.

"They nearly beat Australia in the World Cup, nearly beat them last November too," said Joe Schmidt earlier this week. "Against England last year, they came within six points and had a chance (to get a late try). They're in good shape."

Yet here's the thing. So are Ireland.

Fair enough, the Scots have made forward strides under Vern Cotter. But have they made as much progress as Ireland have under Schmidt?

While it is all well and good to dish out credit to Scotland for nearly beating Australia on a couple of occasions over the last two years, then it is worth using the same criteria to, at some stage, remind ourselves that Ireland have actually beaten the Wallabies twice in the last three years.

Plus they have defeated the Scots four times under Schmidt's stewardship, scoring an average of 32.75 points in the process. And that's before we mention the fact that they won the Championship in 2014 and 2015 before slipping to what was considered a so-so year last season, when they 'only' finished third.

In those same three years, Scotland went from fifth to sixth to fourth.

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So is the hype about the Scots justified? No, but there is certainly cause to talk up their potential. Under Cotter, their performances over the last couple of years have been good - but when you look at the team they have, the truth is they have underachieved. Yes, they are aggressive, fit and organised - but they lack the killer punch.

These are the facts. It wasn't just a refereeing mistake that cost them a place in the World Cup semi-finals but a number of errors by their own players in advance of Craig Joubert making the call that sent Australia, rather than them, into the last four.

While there is unmistakable evidence that under Cotter, Scotland have a positive win/loss ratio, there is also no hiding away from the fact that 12 of those wins were against the second-tier nations of the world game: Canada, Georgia, Japan (three times), USA (twice), Italy (twice), Samoa and Tonga.

Instead, what's really been noticeable is the number of times they have been in a sprint for the line but have just come up short of the tape.

Australia pipped them by a point on two occasions while the Scots also got within 10 points of France twice (once in a World Cup warm-up game), England, Ireland, Wales (twice) and, most impressively, New Zealand.

Yet each time they lost. Moral victories - save for three wins over Argentina and one over France (their first in a decade) - have been the overriding theme of the Cotter regime.

Yet this does not mean it is going to be easy for Ireland today. Anything but.

While Scotland have lost eight of their last 10 Six Nations matches, seven of those defeats were by 12 points or fewer. If nothing else, they're competitive.

"Vern has given faith to the Scotland players, he's simplified the game for them so that they all know their roles and he's brought a real continuity to selection," Jim Telfer, the former Scottish coach, said earlier this week.

"But it's more than that. Every team is a reflection of the character of its coach, and he's a very confident and positive guy who has high standards and has pushed his players to get better. He encourages them to take responsibility, but doesn't operate a blame culture. That has been the main change."

The next step then is to develop a winning culture. Today's Scottish players remind me of Ireland's squad at the tail end of the 1990s, when we were running the French close in Paris and Dublin before Brian O'Driscoll scored his hat-trick in the Stade de France to burst the dam.

From that moment on, we were a different team. The side who didn't win once against the French, the Scots or any of the Tri-Nations heavyweights in the 1990s, built on that March 2000 win in Paris.

A year later England were beaten. And the year after that it was Australia. By the end of the decade we'd a Grand Slam and four Triple Crowns chalked up onto the honours board.

But it required a moment of class to inject belief into the team.

And that is what Scotland need today.

They can do it. As Schmidt pointed out, "They can't be unlucky forever," and when you look at the team sheet, at Josh Strauss, a good back-row, at Jonny Gray, a hard man whose athleticism is as noticeable as his physicality, you can't helped but be impressed. Then there is Richie Gray, an effective performer in the lineout, albeit a man who does not impose himself enough around the park.

Zander Fagerson has improved while the backline - which a while ago had scarcely any credibility now oozes class.

Of the seven backs picked for today's game, all seven have the right to consider themselves prospects for the Lions, even though Stuart Hogg and possibly Finn Russell are the only two who would expect an airline ticket to arrive in the post from Warren Gatland if the squad were to leave for New Zealand next week.

Russell's improvement has been immeasurable in recent years, and his half-back combination with Greig Laidlaw is probably the best Scotland have produced in this department since Armstrong and Chalmers were destroying Irish teams in the 1990s.

Outside them, the power and aggression that Alex Dunbar provides is complemented by the subtler skills of Huw Jones, while the back-three combo of Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland gives the Scots a chance of exploiting a weakness in Ireland's midfield, where Rob Henshaw will have to be at his best to compensate for Paddy Jackson and Garry Ringrose's physical shortcomings.

And yet while I expect the Scots to target this area, for me the game will be won and lost up front, where Ireland are much stronger, particularly in the scrum, where the absence through injury of Alasdair Dickinson and WP Nel has resulted in the spotlight being shone on Fagerson and Allan Dell - who have just seven caps between them.

Not that that worries Dell. "I don't think I've played against Tadhg Furlong," he said. "But from the clips I've watched, he is a strong man, a good player, good around the park - a modern-day prop. People aren't wrong putting him in with a shout for the Lions. But I will try to change that."

Big words - and yet I just can't see it happening. Instead, I expect Ireland to be on top at scrum-time and also to perform more credibly in the lineout this season than they did in last year's Championship, where they won just 84.6pc of their ball from their own throw-ins.

While that statistic improved in November, the figures posted then were still well shy of the 93pc of ball won off Irish throws in the 2014 Championship.

In one sense, though, that was to be expected, as Paul O'Connell - the most talented and intelligent lineout operator I ever played with - had retired and Devin Toner was taking time to adjust to his new role as lineout leader.

With time, though, Toner has grown used to the responsibility and his performances in November were exceptional. Therefore, a relative weakness last year can become a strength today.

Heavies

Ireland's greatest strength, though, lies with the number of dynamic ball-carriers named in their pack. Normally, in any set of forwards, you're looking, ideally, for three or four top-class heavies who can burst across the gain-line and make the hard yards.

Well, Ireland have five exponents of the art in their team today - CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip, Furlong, Iain Henderson and Seán O'Brien. And that's before we mention Jack McGrath who is more than capable of punching holes in any defence.

In contrast, Scotland have just two forwards who you could justifiably tag with the effective and dynamic label - Strauss and Jonny Gray.

So if Ireland's set-pieces work efficiently - and their wrecking ball forwards can cause havoc with their performances in open play - then there is no reason to doubt why Schmidt's team can't get off to a winning start.

That's not to say that Scotland aren't a good side. They are. Ireland, however, remain a better one.

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