There may not have been fluency in the Autumn Nations Cup so far, but there is symmetry. The fixtures involving the six nations are the same as on the opening weekend of this year’s championship, apart from England having ground advantage over France, and if the outcome is another three home victories, the finishing positions will be the same as the tournament that concluded belatedly in October.
The best chance of an upset, for all Wales’s wobbling, looks to be in Dublin where Scotland seek the away victory of note that would confirm their revival. They won in Llanelli five weeks ago against a Wales team that was as mute as the atmosphere at Parc y Scarlets and drew at Twickenham in 2019 after a frenzied comeback, but their most recent visit to Dublin 10 months ago was another hard-luck story.
They lost by seven points having dominated for long periods and may have drawn had their full-back Stuart Hogg not dropped the ball over the line as he went to touch it down. And it was Hogg’s failure to find touch late on against France in the Autumn Nations Cup at Murrayfield last month that cost his side another tilt at a draw. When the margins are fine, Scotland have tended to come out on the wrong side.
They have in the last couple of years developed depth. Only two of the starting backs from Dublin in February remain, along with the front five and Jamie Ritchie in the back row. The South African outside-half Jaco van der Walt wins his first cap after qualifying on residency with Duncan Weir, who scored 23 points in two matches after being recalled following injuries to Finn Russell and Adam Hastings, not even making the bench.
“Can anyone tell me why Duncan Weir is not starting?” asked the former Scotland outside-half Craig Chalmers. “He waited for his opportunity to get back and played pretty well. We have too many project players in the team and giving away cheap caps to South Africans does not fit with me.”
Van der Walt becomes Scotland’s fifth 10 since the resumption of international rugby with Stuart Hogg finishing in the position in Llanelli. Their head coach, Gregor Townsend, sees that as a sign of the depth they are developing which will be needed if they are to challenge the top sides.
“I would never have thought we could have had five stand-offs playing international rugby,” said Townsend. “We will have used 39 players this campaign and it is exciting to see options grow in certain positions, such as second row. Ultimately, you want not just the top 15 or 23 to be at a very high level, but 30 players.”
Andy Farrell’s report card from his union as his first year in charge nears its conclusion awarded the campaign average, rather than high marks. Their second-half display against Georgia last Sunday marked the low point when they drew the second-half 3-3 against opponents who had been shut out by England and Wales.
“I am sure Scotland will be licking their lips and the challenge for us is to right the wrongs of last weekend and put it up to the Scots,” said the Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray. “We reviewed the game and were harsh on each other. It was the way it needed to be and we did not shy away from it. If Scotland had played Georgia last week and struggled to put them to the sword, we would be more confident than we normally would.”
Farrell wants Ireland to play with more variety than they did under his predecessor, Joe Schmidt, but like Wayne Pivac with Wales, is finding that changing old habits takes time. They will not be reverting to type to secure the victory that will ensure they finish third behind England and France.
“People do not see the steps we are taking on a daily basis behind the scenes,” said Farrell. “The fundamentals of our game have always been strong. It is about improving other aspects and finding a balance. That’s the tricky bit.”
Ireland’s attack coach, Mike Catt, said there would be no going back. “Rugby union is all about decision-making whether it’s defence, kicking, or whatever, and you’ve got to be in a good headspace to do that. It is about bring clear-headed, controlled and composed.”