Friday 23 March 2018

Scots' six-day turnaround plays into Irish hands

Scotland's Sean Lamont. Photo: Getty
Scotland's Sean Lamont. Photo: Getty
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

This afternoon's Test in Murrayfield will not be long over when Vern Cotter will allude to the dreaded six-day turnaround. If it was Joe on the wrong end of the shortened preamble then he would be busy backdating the disadvantage to the minute - so not only would his opponents have an extra day, but an early kick-off on that extra day. Which is what Ireland are enjoying as of 3.30pm yesterday. Throw in the travel factor and this will be a tough week for the Scots to sign off the campaign on a positive note.

It's a while since they've done that - 2006 to be precise. Their chance to make a down-payment on a happy ending comes this afternoon in Murrayfield in a fixture that, historically, is a nightmare for them. Well, recent history. Back in the day the Scots used to swap wins with France in a way that made us envious, but it is 2006 since they managed it last.

Since then it has largely been downhill for them against all comers, bar Italy, with nine wins and a draw from 48 Championship matches. Sean Lamont is the only survivor in today's squad from that win over France in 2006. He is 35. By the time he comes on - if he does at all - it will be interesting to see who's left standing, for Cotter expects France to get after them in a big way.

"You look at the culture, what French people bring to the game, and the first thing is the physicality," he said last week. "We know that is the way they will play, a zero-pass game and shift us up the paddock. Move bodies and shift us up. We know it is coming. We need to be ready for it."

That's everybody's default in Test rugby, but even allowing for that, the number of big athletes Guy Noves has packed into his side will make this painful for the Scots. A backline with Wesley Fofana, Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa for example is a gathering of riches far beyond what Ireland could manage. Up front their only weakness is, ironically in a big man's game, their biggest operator. We should qualify that: Yoann Maestri clearly is not a weakling, but enough of his power is wasted by an attitude well removed from what it should be. Having had him in Toulouse clearly Noves is happy enough with what the second row brings, but his partner, Alexandre Flanquart, is a far better player.

Even so, Scotland will wake up pretty sore tomorrow morning. They got rag-dolled at the breakdown in round one against England, improved on that in Cardiff, and then traded fairly well in Rome. Since that win - comfy in the end - one of our colleagues in Scotland asked Cotter if his team needed now to guard against complacency. Top class!

It's a question Joe Schmidt has had to field over his opening two, stellar, seasons. Understandably it has dried up. Rather he's taking questions - or reading articles - about the risk-averse nature of his team, and most recently his selections.

For yesterday's canter for example he opted to leave out Stuart McCloskey altogether after a decent enough debut in Twickenham a fortnight ago, to include Fergus McFadden on the bench, and to pass over Paddy Jackson. All of these drew negative comment, but it was the decision to opt for Finlay Bealham as cover at loosehead that surprised us most. A year ago James Cronin's progress suggested he was tipping away nicely, and even though it was very late in the day in Paris this season when Schmidt gave him a run, at least he was in the right place. Not anymore he ain't.

Bealham now has a cap to his name, having come on in the 66th minute. He produced one lovely pass on a debut that must have felt like the next best thing to a training run. You'd wonder when he will get his next chance, for Cian Healy is likely to be fit to face Scotland, as are Rob Kearney and Eoin Reddan.

"They were all minor strains, but identifiable, so we didn't want to push them," Schmidt said. There were no fresh injuries of consequence to report, he said.

Naturally enough the coach made much of Italy's resistance - their body language had suggested otherwise once they were sickened by the intercept at the start of the second half. As for his own crew, it's impossible not to feel pretty good about yourself after scoring nine tries, so it was a happy camp last night.

They had their feet up while the Scots were sweating over today's game against France. At this stage of the campaign, the extra recovery/preparation time takes on even more importance. We won't know the mental load until the final whistle this afternoon. If Scotland arrive here on Friday after yet another defeat, to face a side physically and mentally fresher, then it's hard to see how they will cope. In which case Ireland will end up in mid table - which is where they were headed from the start.

Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, D Taylor, A Dunbar, T Visser; F Russell, G Laidlaw; A Dickinson, R Ford, WP Nel, R Gray, J Gray, J Barclay, J Strauss, J Hardie. Replacements: S McInally, R Sutherland, M Low, T Swinson, R Wilson, S Hidalgo-Clyne, P Horne, S Lamont

France: S Spedding; W Fofana, G Fickou, M Mermoz, V Vakatawa; F Trinh-Duc, M Machenaud; J Poirot, G Guirado, R Slimani, A Flanquart, Y Maestri, Y Camara, D Chouly, W Lauret. Replacements: C Chat, V Pelo, U Antonio, S Vahaamahina, L Goujon, S Bezy, J Plisson, M Medard

Referee: G Jackson (New Zealand)

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