Wednesday 12 December 2018

Comment: Flowering of Scotland a real threat to Ireland's Grand Slam hopes

Townsend’s men more than just ‘entertainers’

Finn Russell was a key part of Scotland’s stunning victory against England. Photo: Getty Images
Finn Russell was a key part of Scotland’s stunning victory against England. Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

He won't admit it publicly but privately there is at least one Irishman who won't be mired in dire despair should his native land slip up against the Scots next Saturday.

For Six Nations chief John Feehan, seeing the points shared a certain way on the scoreboard could help bump up the points on the balance sheet.

A final-day showdown is much better for business; were Ireland to wrap up the title before then, maybe not so much.

Scottish and English wins this weekend will keep the pot boiling and the plot broiling.

Historically, the odds are against Gregor Townsend's men; Ireland have not succumbed at home to the visitors since 2010 - and have tasted Dublin defeat just once in 20 years - while Joe Schmidt has yet to experience a championship defeat in Lansdowne Road.

While concrete certainty has underpinned Ireland's relentless charge towards a Grand Slam, precarious promise will accompany the Scots.

Spanked at home by Wales, but ferocious in victory there against England, which version will land in Dublin this Thursday?

Expect

Ireland should expect the latter; after all, they are intimately acquainted with how this brief yet feverish championship can alter mood swings and form.

In 2017 they bookended their campaign with a humbling day one defeat in Murrayfield and a stunning power surge against the English to at least deny the champions their own Slam.

Ireland will not be stung twice, and yet their frailties out wide remain obvious to all, even if the pace and nous of Garry Ringrose in midfield should limit the now recurring lapses on either 15-metre channel.

But the Scots are about more than wide-wide; they have added grunt-grunt, too, and they will offer a substantial variety of threats to Ireland, certainly much more than a poor Welsh side, who still came within one pass of snatching victory.

Mockingly patronised as the 'great entertainers' pre-championship, Scotland lived up to that tag against Wales, but the sight of slightly cocky men in white restored their virility and they retained their variety.

Finn Russell's astonishing pass within his own half offered the most compelling vision, but there was much else on show that represented a sterner and more mature Scottish side.

For one, there was the awesome sight of an English line-out being thwarted on three separate occasions in three different ways.

So content were they to acknowledge they would have less ball, they kicked far less than the opposition; unlike the Welsh in Dublin, theirs was a much smarter kicking game, predominantly knowing when and where to do so.

Their breakdown work - again, contrast here with the docile Welsh, who rarely committed numbers - was utterly outstanding and there was little wonder that Townsend issued a thumbs-up emoji on the day Ryan Wilson escaped a foul play ban.

Scotland sourced nine turnovers on the floor, a quite astonishing number which reflected not merely the physical energy of a famous fixture, but also supreme technical prowess.

And it indicates that not only do they possess a more varied threat on and off the ball, but also that there is less reliance on their star players to inflict damage.

It is striking that of their six tries to date, none have been scored by Stuart Hogg, the mesmerising full-back who was named Six Nations player of the tournament two years in succession.

Neither has club colleague Tommy Seymour - like Hogg, a man with strong Belfast connections - which means their two most dangerous players have recorded blanks in a hat-trick of games. Most unusual.

Scotland can now strike from anywhere and in Huw Jones they have unearthed another contender for Player of the Championship, although it is unlikely he will waltz through the middle of the green wall as easily as he carved the English open.

Townsend, for all his tactical acuity, has also been unafraid to keep his squad on their toes in the selection stakes.

At half-back he has restored Greig Laidlaw at nine and the man who became quite moribund under Vern Cotter has been rejuvenated, such that he slotted in at 10 for the final quarter to steer his side to victory in Paris.

Townsend has also handled Finn Russell admirably; it takes one mercurial out-half to recognise another and, though there were calls for the former Glasgow charge to be dumped after an uncertain opening fortnight, a consummate all-round display against England silenced the doubters.

Optimism

Scotland can still target a title and, although they will carry none of the mildly over-arching optimism that tripped them on the opening day, their improvement demands respect.

They have slowly chipped away at milestones that had hung around their neck for so many years; it is not that long since their guaranteed presence in the Six Nations itself was the subject for open debate.

In 2016 they beat France for the first time in a decade, then against Ireland claimed a first opening day win in 11 years in 2017, before beating Wales for the first time in a decade.

They have also claimed the home and away scalps of Australia before Murrayfield glory against England signified another novel landmark.

"We know we've got Ireland, who are an outstanding team with a great home record," Tonwnsend says.

"We've got our own issues to deal with about being better away from home, and that's going to be our focus when we come back into camp in a week's time.

"We have to show a truer picture of what we're about when we play away from home and we'll see where that takes us."

Winning on the road - which, aside from Italy they haven't done since that 2010 victory here- would represent a monumental leap.

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