The current Scottish squad is littered with more talent than any other Scotland team since the beginning of the professional era. Frustratingly for their coach Gregor Townsend and the thousands of passionate Scottish supporters, their team has been so maddeningly inconsistent that any chance to build momentum within the championship has been extinguished before it can burst into flame and take hold.
In last year's Six Nations two excellent away performances against England and France were sacrificed on the altar of ill-discipline and inaccuracy against Ireland and Wales at Murrayfield. This year, a gutsy Calcutta Cup win was followed by twin disasters in Cardiff and France at home.
Last week, the Scots personified their obvious talent and lack of consistency. Scotland scored three magnificent long-range tries. All full of high endeavour, quality passing, footwork, support play and creativity. Between all of this brilliant attack, there were long periods of poor passing, sloppy breakdown work and some very soft defence.
Finn Russell’s performances of late have personified Scotlands inconsistency and he has paid the price, being relegated to the bench. Sadly, that selection is no surprise. Russell’s lack of urgency and effort, especially in defence is not culturally acceptable from a team leader.
Whether it is the skilful Scotland who gets off the bus at the Aviva today or inaccurate Scotland is anyone’s guess. For the high-quality Scotland persona to appear, Scotland’s great players need to stand up and play great.
Stuart Hogg, Hamish Watson, the Fagerson brothers, along with the emerging dynamo of Rory Darge must bring energy, enthusiasm and far more accuracy to all aspects of their game. Far more than they have displayed in this championship to date.
If Scotland are to grab an unlikely victory today at the Aviva, their collective defensive efforts will have to be at their peak. Away from home a team’s defence is the foundational bedrock of their performance. While defence takes far less skill than attack, it requires determination, group cohesiveness and buckets of personal courage. It also requires each individual player to adopt the mindset of a mission, to successfully make every tackle they are engaged in.
As my old club coach would say: “Do your job and make your tackles.”
Against England in the opening round Scotland defended bravely, letting in a single English try before tossing all that good work away with far too many missed or ineffective tackles against Wales a week later.
Ireland’s attack will pose considerable challenges to the Scottish forwards because the Irish ball carriers have multiple outlet options. This will force the defending Scottish tight five to not only make multiple tackles but to make pressurised decisions of who they should tackle. By taking the ball to the gain line, Ireland create an environment that will demand the Scottish forwards play with both high defensive work rates and technical excellence. If the Scottish forwards can deliver a top-quality defensive game with effective tackles and breakdown work, then Scotland will have a chance.
Last week France were the perfect example of what the Scots must do. As a young team on the verge of a Grand Slam opportunity, France were nervous. So nervous that for the first time under Fabien Galthié’s coaching, France played with fear. When the fear took hold, the brilliant French attack evaporated. The opportunity for a Grand Slam fell back on to each individual French player demanding they not miss a tackle. The French defended magnificently and did not let themselves or their country down.
In the white hot heat of competition, it was a coming-of-age performance from a French team who can now look forward to the comfort of a packed, Allez les Bleus singing and Tricolour flag-waving Stade de France to lift them to their first Grand Slam in a decade.
Scotland have a chance, but it is a slim one. This is because when Ireland walk on to the green grass of the Aviva they are inspired, uplifted and emboldened. Home has been a happy place for Ireland for a very long time.
Adding to this huge home advantage, like France in Cardiff, Ireland's victory at Twickenham has given the team a powerful shot of momentum that will propel them forward today and on into the tour of New Zealand.
Against England, in game number seven of their new running philosophy, Ireland killed off the ridiculous “cultural cringe” that they can’t play away, be the favourites against a big opponent and win. Ireland began the game like champions, then faltered and were placed under enormous pressure by a tough and gallant England, whose performance would have broken most teams across the globe.
Ireland bent, but crucially they did not break.
England’s scrum tactics were another example of the desperate need to overhaul the scrum laws. England were brilliantly clever and highly illegal in almost every scrum that resulted in a penalty to them. I admire their cohesiveness and the superb execution of their well-coached plan. It was a virtuoso performance of the dark arts of scrummaging.
The co-ordination from the English pack was astonishing. England's tighthead would angle in on Sheehan while twisting Cian Healy's outside shoulder in towards the tunnel. Simultaneously, the English tighthead flanker, Tom Curry, would break his bind on his prop and drive directly on to Healy's ribs, illegally pushing him across the scrum. At the same time, the other six players in the English scrum would step in unison to the left, away from Healy. Like a well-drilled set of the Queens guards, twisting the entire scrum giving the illusion that Ireland were the culprits. Now that takes a lot of planning and coaching.
It was technically brilliant stuff and despite it all being highly illegal, I truly admired it.
The set of dogsbody laws that surround the scrum empowered a grave injustice against Ireland. One that almost cost them the game. It is another dramatic example of rugby’s dire need for law reform, as no game should be determined by technical infringements at the scrum. The blame does not sit with the referee. Let us all blame World Rugby’s outmoded laws.
To Ireland’s great credit they took all the English back-slapping and pressure, then resiliently regrouped. They reignited their internal fire to once again return to their running game and put England to the sword in their own backyard.
Ireland delivered a bonus-point victory while scoring some of the most brilliant tries by an away team that Twickenham has witnessed in many years. Ireland imposed their game plan on a wounded England with enough pressure and skill to score 32 points.
Don’t listen to the begrudgers. On any measure that was a high-quality result and a momentum shifter for Ireland.
At the Aviva today, the Irish momentum gained at Twickenham, combined with their exceptional running game, should deliver them a victory over Scotland with a bonus Triple Crown and a credible second place in the championship.