Indomitable Rory Best sums up nerves, fear and excitement
Ireland captain insists his men can’t let an emotional Scotland spring from the traps
Scotland v Ireland
Kick-off: Saturday, 2.25pm
On TV: Live on RTE and BBC.
Now, as ever, it feels like the eve of something special. As the Ireland squad emerged from the Victorian charm of the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street on Friday for their captain’s run in Murrayfield, a crowd had gathered and across the road a kilted bagpipe player was belting it out. Another Six Nations dawns.
It sent the usual shiver of expectation up the captain’s spine. Rory Best will be playing in his 52nd successive match in the championship, and his 35th in a row with the number two jersey on his back, having been an ever-present for the last 10 Six Nations. Durable or what.
Entering his 11th, the nerves, excitement and fear are as pronounced as ever. “You don’t really get the excitement until you come into the city,” he said. “And you can feel the nervous energy around the place. Coupled with that, there is fear, and if you don’t have that little bit of fear, you’re probably not in a good place.
“The biggest thing is just excitement. This is a fantastic championship and I’ve loved playing in every game so far. Hopefully there’s still a few more to come but when you look back these will be some of the best memories that you’ll have, just the championship and these 24 hours. Now there is no more training to be done.”
Kick-off, he added, couldn’t come quick enough, and come kick-off Scotland intend whipping up a storm. “One of the great things in world rugby is the likes of Flower of Scotland, and the emotion that evokes in them. For us, we need to make sure that we don’t lose those early battles, those moments early in the game, because they are more emotionally charged than us. We have to make sure that we appreciate we’re playing for Ireland, we’re pulling on a green jersey and we have to be 100 per cent disciplined but we also can’t be afraid to let out a little emotion ourselves.”
With Best, his equally redoubtable vice-captain Jamie Heaslip and other hardened nuts at the helm, despite losing a core of frontliners, Ireland can still field a noticeably more experienced team, even if the bench looks relatively callow.
The Irish XV has 615 Test caps between them; the bench has a further 156 caps, albeit Cian Healy and Tommy Bowe account for 129 of them. The average age of the starting team is 27.8 years. By contrast, the Scottish XV has 357 Test caps between them; while the bench has a further 242 caps. The average age of the starting team is 26.3 years.
Ireland are still a better team with Johnny Sexton in the mix. Paddy Jackson doesn’t quite take the ball to the line like Sexton, nor stay involved in the play. But he has started five of Ireland’s last seven games, steering the ship home in the first Test against South Africa and against Australia. As Greg Feek said on Friday, he’s a leader, a smart kid, knows his detail and has the trust of the team and management alike.
Reassuringly, Jackson had the best goal-kicking ratio (87 per cent) of any tier one player to attempt 15 or more shots at goal in Test rugby in 2016. He is currently on a run of 15 successful kicks, having slotted all 13 in the November window.
Ireland have also won their last four Tests against Scotland, and have won 14 of the 17 meetings in the Six Nations, including six of eight visits to Murrayfield. Scotland have only won a Six Nations opener once, whereas Ireland have won 13, drawn one and lost just three.
Granted, Scotland’s chipper mood has more substance than before. They have lost only once since the end of last season’s Six Nations, and that by a single point to Australia at Murrayfield in November.
There’s also the promised stormy winds and rain, which with a little luck may abate by kick-off or thereabouts, and the Romain Poite factor. The emergence of Huw Jones, who missed the Scottish net before surfacing with the Stormers in South Africa, adds to the X-factor provided by Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, and provides what Scotland have craved throughout much of the Six Nations.
Hence, the contrast in game-breakers looks more evenly balanced this time, and for all of Andy Farrell’s impact, he and this Ireland defence will be ultra-determined to improve upon an autumnal series which did see them leak 13 tries in four Tests.
But this also doesn’t look like one of those days. More, it might be that Ireland’s array of ball-carriers can keep taking it to Scotland, and with CJ Stander, Seán O’Brien and Iain Henderson in the mix from the start and Robbie Henshaw in his current form, Ireland have rarely taken the pitch with such ballast.
Add in their customary accuracy at the breakdown, the Joe Schmidt factor against his good mate Vern Cotter, and their mental strength if it comes to a taut endgame, then barring anything too untoward they should have enough about them to get the job done.
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg; Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour; Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw (capt); Allan Dell, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson; Jonny Gray, Richie Gray; Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson, Josh Strauss.
Replacements: Ross Ford, Gordon Reid, Simon Berghan, Tim Swinson, John Barclay, Ali Price, Duncan Weir, Mark Bennett.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, Devin Toner; CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Niall Scannell, Cian Healy, John Ryan, Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier, Kieran Marmion, Ian Keatley, Tommy Bowe
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Overall head to head: Played 132. Scotland 66 wins, Ireland 61 wins, 5 draws.
Last five meetings: (2016) Ireland 35 Scotland 25. (2015) Ireland 28 Scotland 22. Scotland 10 Ireland 40. (2014) Ireland 28 Scotland 6. (2013) Scotland 12 Ireland 8.
Leading points scorers: Scotland – Greig Laidlaw 570. Ireland – Paddy Jackson 136.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 15/8 Scotland, 22/1 Draw, 1/2 Ireland. Handicap odds (Scotland +5pts) Evens Scotland, 22/1 Draw, Evens Ireland.
Forecast: Ireland to win.