By Jeremy Guscott
SO much rests on Scotland winning their opening game of the Six Nations against Wales in Cardiff. If they lose the reaction will be that it is another
Scottish false dawn, and nothing much is going to happen.
I’m not sure that perception would be right, because Scotland have definitely turned the corner. It would make their chances of winning the Championship more difficult because they would have to win their next four games – but because they follow the trip to Wales by playing France and England at Murrayfield before going to Dublin and Rome, it is not out of the question.
However, to shut everyone up they have got to start by beating Wales. It should be a new beginning for the Scots with Gregor Townsend in charge. He knows this tournament as a player, and as a coach – he was an assistant to Andy Robinson – and he is on a mission to set Scotland free by building on the foundations and solid structure put in place by Vern Cotter.
International rugby is a tough place, and the Six Nations is among the toughest because you are under the microscope for almost two months, and are reminded every moment of any shortcomings you have.
The number of times that Scotland have won less than 50 per cent of their games in the Six Nations in the last decade, finishing fourth, fifth or sixth in the table, is disappointing, and they have not won in Cardiff in the tournament since 2003.
Front row injuries have taken a toll on the Scots, so Wales should have an advantage at the scrum. Wales will be expecting to mount pressure, and the Scottish pack has to stop the Welsh from dominating the scrum.
The best way of doing that is by making no mistakes – and that is a team effort. The Scots can take the pressure off their front five by not giving away scrums through knock-ons, forward passes, inaccurate kicking, not-straight line-outs and offsides.
The international game puts huge pressure on teams but the Scots have to park that, and part of the trick is to enjoy what you are doing. Scotland are trying to play more freely, but with that freedom comes the absolute need for accuracy. The less accurate you are, the more you give the opposition the ball, including at the scrum.
Townsend is a smart man who was ambitious as a player, and the same applies to his coaching. Players and assistant coaches sometimes have to question a head coach, and I believe that Gregor is open to discussion rather than being a “my way or the highway” style of coach.
The perception is that New Zealand play an open style of rugby, but in fact what they do is create a structured chaos that plays into their hands.
Ireland are structured in the Joe Schmidt style, and Scotland have to become structured in a Gregor Townsend way.
That does not mean running everything from deep and making mistakes that put you under pressure or force you to concede penalties. If they do that in Cardiff they will have Leigh Halfpenny’s goal-kicking to contend with. It means clearing your lines efficiently when you have to.
The key for Scotland will be the way that scrum-half Ali Price and fly-half Finn Russell run the show. It means that quick ball must be moved speedily so that Stuart Hogg can come in at first receiver, centre, or wide out to exploit any gaps, and that medium speed ball goes up in the air with the precision that gives the Scottish chasers the chance to win it back.
The Glasgow backs showed against Exeter that they have almost telepathic understanding, and the challenge for the Scottish forwards will be to deliver quick ball by playing some of the best rugby of their careers. They did enough against Australia in the autumn to secure the win, and if I’m Scotland I would be thinking that outside the scrum we have every reason to win in Wales.
It is important as a back that if your forwards are under pressure you must not add to it. If you’re getting less than 40 per cent possession the temptation is always to try to do too much when you get the ball. Instead, you have to be patient, bide your time, and trust in your ability to make tackle after tackle.
If there are 12 scrums in a game and you are under pressure you must get channel one ball out fast, and Scotland must have practised to do that so that they diminish the Welsh influence at the scrum.
I do not believe that Scotland will be starved of ball against Wales in any case. The crux will be if the Scottish front five get squeezed and the game is slowed down. However, although Wales should probably play a tighter, closed game, they probably won’t – especially if they have the Scarlets pairing of Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell at half-back, both of whom will want to run.
If that happens it will give Price and Russell the opportunity to use their skill, speed of mind, and pace to launch a Scottish backline that can hurt Wales. In Scotland’s opening victory against Ireland in last season’s Six Nations they showed their invention with Hogg scoring twice and inside-centre Alex Dunbar joining a line-out to score.
As for injuries, when you get to picking second or third choice players to take the place of starters what sometimes happens is that they seize the opportunity. Forced changes produce positives from players you would not have brought in because they rise to the occasion in the rarefied atmosphere – in my time with England Mike Catt coming in to replace Paul Hull at full-back was an example.
The Scots also have the benefit of having an experienced, influential captain in John Barclay. He is not the biggest, most destructive runner, but he is a real nuisance of a flanker who slows opposition ball down. Sometimes he is borderline in terms of giving penalties away, but as part of an impressive Scarlets side he brings a great benefit of being on the same wavelength as Townsend. At 31, Barclay is in the wonderful place of enjoying his rugby and being part of a Scotland side which is looking to play in a similar way to his Welsh club side.
Huw Jones at outside-centre is another Scottish player to watch, especially if he becomes the partner in attack that Hogg needs. Jones, Hogg and Tommy Seymour working well together spells trouble for any opposition.
Overall, however, the big decisions will be made at 9 and 10, and tactically Price and Russell will have to be on the money in the same way the Murray-Sexton combination is for Ireland, and the Youngs-Ford-Farrell unit is for England.
Russell is now a fixture in the Scotland side having won 32 caps, and although he doesn’t have the experience of Sexton, or Farrell, this season Townsend will expect the Glasgow fly-half to embrace the role of being a team leader.
I expect it to be an open game against Wales, and with game changers like Hogg and Huw Jones outside Russell, and try scorers like Seymour, I back Scotland to win.
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