Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

Ireland must respect power of Scotland

Gregor Townsend
Gregor Townsend

Gregor Townsend's recollections of Scotland versus Ireland clashes fall either side of a line as distinct as the Great Glen which traverses his native land.

Up to and including 2001 was a good time to have been a Scot. Since then, however, Ireland have had almost exclusive entitlement to the Celtic cousins' bragging rights.

True, after 2001 when Scotland won 32-10 at Murrayfield, there was March 2010 when they spoiled what was to have been Ireland's triumphant exit from Croke Park. A Triple Crown was to have been the perfect way to end a highly successful term as tenants of the GAA. The Scots wrecked that plan, however.

But other than that it has been a case of green over blue supremacy in the annual Six Nations jousts.

If you are a Scot, the statistics in championship matches against Ireland since 2001 do not make pleasant reading: played 12, lost 11.

"I remember playing and Scotland having a decent record against Ireland," said the legendary Caledonian stand-off who wore the colours of Gala, Northampton Saints and Lions with distinction in the course of an 84-Tests career and is now Director of Rugby at Ulster's Friday night opponents Glasgow Warriors.

"But since 2000 I think we've only won twice. Ireland having been winning these games for a long period now and I think it's time we started making things a wee bit more equal."

This time he feels it might be different. As he sees it, injury-hit Ireland are not the force they were when their golden generation delivered a Grand Slam in 2009. To that add the fact that, finally, Scotland got their act together by trouncing Italy 34-10 last time out.

"It's an interesting one now," is Townsend's reading of Sunday's Edinburgh set-to. "I think if you'd asked anyone in the past four or five years who'd be favourites going into an Ireland-Scotland game, most people would have said Ireland.

"Even a couple of weeks ago, following Ireland's great start to the Six Nations against Wales in Cardiff and Scotland's defeat by England at Twickenham, you'd probably have got the same answer.

"But now with Ireland having a few injuries and Scotland having played very well against Italy, I think it will be much closer in the bookies' minds. There's growing optimism here after that win in Murrayfield with Scotland having played well in defence and attack that day.

"So I think it will be a close game. In fact, games between Scotland and Ireland in the past few years have been much closer than where the two teams have finished up at the end of the season," he pointed out.

"This will be another close one. There will be a real determination from Ireland to bounce back from that English result and with Scotland having beaten Italy and now having two more home games they'll want to keep the momentum going."

With the Scots and Irish alike having a won one, lost one record at this stage, he knows defeat on Sunday afternoon would be a crushing blow to either. The Six Nations is a tournament where, if you struggle to get a win in the first two games, you're really up against it. You lose momentum and your confidence," he said.

"Getting an early win is something we haven't been able to do in the past few years. We've had some really good victories on summer tours – beating Argentina, beating Australia last summer – and in November beating South Africa and Australia.

"But in the Six Nations we've not started with a win. Last season we lost to England with a charge-down, the year before we lost a crazy game. Now, though, we've got that home win against Italy and that has given them a lot of confidence.

"There are a lot of good players in the Scottish team at the moment. If they compete well in contact then maybe the back three will get opportunities to counter-attack – and the likes of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser are very good attackers."

As you would expect of a man who clocked up 43 Five/Six Nations appearances and scored 10 championship tries, he is a big fan of the northern hemisphere's annual international showpiece.

"England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy are teams who, on their day, can all produce good wins. But you have to back that up with another win to keep the momentum going," he pointed out.

Having lost to England at Twickenham on the opening day, neither a Grand Slam nor a Triple Crown is available to Scotland this season. The championship remains a possibility, however. But here Townsend urged caution given that Ireland have similar ambitions.

"I wouldn't want Scotland getting too far ahead of themselves," he warned. "We have Ireland and then Wales here so some people have started talking about winning three home games in a row and then going to France having lost just once. But Ireland were outstanding at the Millennium and Wales were magnificent at the Stade de France so those are two tough games."

l Glasgow Warriors Director of Rugby, Gregor Townsend, was speaking on behalf of RaboDirect, sponsors of the RaboDirect PRO12. Follow @RaboInsider on Twitter to win great #RaboPRO12 prizes.

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