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Scotland are poor starters, but be wary of tartan tenacity

By David Kelly

When Scotland clinched the last Five Nations championship in 1999, they had high hopes of beginning the new century and the new six-team championship in a similar vein.

They would, however, lose the opening match, a glorious introduction to the enlarged festivities for Italy, who pooped the partying Scots in Rome.

It would become a familiar trend in all but one of the next 13 editions; bar a shock 2006 win against France in Murrayfield, the Scots would lose all of their opening day bows.

After their third-placed finish last season and a decent, if familiarly fruitless Heineken Cup adventure from their two clubs, Scotland are once more eyeing up a positive campaign but the underlying fundamentals disabuse any potential for optimism.

Their lady-haired Scott Johnson, he of the natty one-line quips and middle-aged surfer dude quiff, is overseeing his last campaign before handing the reins to Vern Cotter, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's boss at Clermont.

Unfortunately, instead of spending his birthday yesterday running the rule over Scotland's final training session before today's team selection, Cotter was stranded in France, detained unavoidably by family business.

Thus was removed, in one fell swoop, a key hands-on influence in attempting to hoodwink the Ireland coach by dint of his intimate knowledge of his former masterful apprentice.

Given that Cotter emerged triumphant in his last two meetings with Schmidt – admittedly with a masterful side in Clermont – Scotland could have done with his presence this week, ahead of his prospective employment on a full-time basis this summer.

"He was going to come across but that is not going to happen now," according to Johnson. "He may come across at some stage but he's got a family issue now, so that's fine. Let him do his thing and we'll do ours."

Aside from the coaching worries there are enough problems on the pitch to send a chill up even the most resilient kilt-wearer.

Moray Low, from Glasgow will be named at 3 today with Geoff Cross, backed by less than a half of competitive rugby this term behind him, the unsatisfactory back-up; Cian Healy and Jack McGrath will be ravenous.

"We've got to find out about them," says Johnson, puzzlingly, of a tight-head with five years and 46 caps in the bank. "Not everyone is blessed with a depth at tight-head prop," he said more candidly. "We're just going to have to weather that one."

The storms continue at out-half; Schmidt's quandaries merely lie in his reserve option – does he pick an habitual starter who doesn't regularly goal-kick or an habitual goal-kicker who doesn't regularly start?

Johnson has a different, if related problem, except it refers to his starting contenders – Glasgow duo Ruairidh Jackson and Duncan Weir are not even certain of their club place, let alone their international status.

The likelihood is that Jackson – a more reliable place-kicker than Weir – will start the championship but he may not even finish this game, let alone the championship.

"The form of both Jacko and Duncan has been good, in aspects of their game," notes Johnson, who would dearly crave the certainty Jonny Sexton provides his opposition coach. Greig Tonks, from Edinburgh, is another who is in the selection mix.

"It is consistency we are looking for. We talk about the consistency of performance we want within the squad but that is a position that is probably a bit more important."

Even captain Kelly Brown has been told in no uncertain terms that his place is not guaranteed, with viable options in Chris Fusaro and Ross Rennie challenging.

Scotland have won just once in Dublin since 1988; the 23-20 post Grand Slam mugging of Declan Kidney's team in 2010 also represents their sole away win in an astonishingly otherwise barren run of 17 games.

No matter how unsuspecting, one should always beware the potential of a thistle's sting.

Belfast Telegraph


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