Andy Robinson has unquestionably decided that attack is the best form of defence for Scotland against Ireland in this Sunday’s Six Nations clash at Murrayfield. After two consecutive losses- a courageous but unfruitful loss away to France and a disastrously demoralising 24-6 home defeat to Wales- everyone connected to Scottish Rugby knew something had to change.
But even the most damning critics of Scotland’s performance against Wales will be surprised by the bold personnel changes Scotland’s head coach has made. In an effort to turn Scotland’s Six Nations campaign around, Robinson has announced seven changes to the team that started against Wales. Despite injuries ruling out Joe Ansbro and Hugo Southwell, that still represents a drastic re-organisation of the Scottish team.
The most notable change is at perhaps Scotland’s biggest problem position: fly-half. Although a world-class kicker from hand when he is in top form, Dan Parks lack of attacking prowess and inconsistency has lead to Ruaridh Jackson being given his first Six Nations start, despite being yellow-carded last weekend in Glasgow’s 37-8 loss to Connacht. Jackson will certainly provide a more attacking impetus, although his lack of experience could prove fatal against Ireland’s veteran no.10 Ronan O’Gara, who starts for Ireland in place of Jonathan Sexton. Mike Blair should help the young stand-off to cope, though. He returns to the starting side, replacing Rory Lawson.
Outside Jackson, Sean Lamont will receive his first start this campaign, after being one of very few Scotland players to escape severe criticism for their performance against Wales. Lamont will start at inside-centre, with Nick De Luca moving from inside to outside centre in the absence of Joe Ansbro. Lamont’s presence in-field should provide Jackson with confidence, and give Scotland solid go-forward ball. The latter is something Scotland have been lacking, often losing the ball at a crucial stage, or failing to gain ground from advantageous positions. For De Luca, this is a crucial game if he is to continue in the Scotland set-up. He is yet to prove himself at international level, shown by his mistake-ridden displays against France and Wales.
Elsewhere in the backs, fan-favourite Chris Paterson returns for his 102nd cap at full-back, partly out of necessity, since both Hugo Southwell and Rory Lamont are injured. He is joined by Nikki Walker and Max Evans on the wings.
Robinson’s changes to the backline indicate he is putting faith in his preferred expansive and flowing attacking style of rugby, rather than retreat to a more reserved and traditionally Scottish strategy. Such faith could end up being a stroke of genius, and Robinson should be applauded for sticking to his beliefs, particularly at a time when belief is hard to find in Scottish rugby.
However, against a backline with the firepower of Ireland’s- D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Bowe, Earls and Fitzgerald- it is a risky tactic to adopt, and one that has the potential to completely crush Scottish spirits.
To a great extent, whether that happens or not will depend on how the Scottish pack plays. Should they give their own backs ball, there is plenty of talent there to score tries. But should they fail, the same could be said of the Irish backline.
With their backs truly against the wall, there is only one thing the Scottish forwards can afford to do- come out fighting. Their recent performances have not befitted a Scottish national team, usually known for its determination and battling qualities, if nothing else.
In an effort to rekindle those attributes, Robinson has turned to the enigmatic back-row trio known as the ‘Killer B’s’- John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie and Kelly Brown. Separate they are each very good players, but when united, they become outstanding. Questions have been raised about the inclusion of Beattie however, who only recently returned from injury. Replacing Nathan Hines at number 8, he will be vital to Scotland’s hope of delivering a greater attacking threat against Ireland.
At lock the rampaging Richie Gray returns, an easy choice given his outstanding display against France, where the gigantic second row appeared to be at every tackle situation. Captain Al Kellock retains his place beside Gray.
In the front row, Ross Ford and Allan Jacobsen are chosen again, joined by Moray Low. The Edinburgh prop replaces Euan Murray, unavailable because of his religious beliefs. Although this is a forced change, Low could potentially have ousted Murray regardless.
With that plethora of changes in both the forwards and backs, Scotland are hoping to salvage some silver lining from a so-far dismal Six Nations tournament, in time for the World Cup in the autumn.
Even if they are not capable of beating Ireland, the set-up of this side should deliver the exact kind of entertaining, free-flowing rugby that Andy Robinson craves for this Scotland side. To win, they must improve their decision-making, match Ireland physically and show composure when seeking a try, or under pressure. If they can do that, they will have at least taken steps forward from the Welsh fixture.
But ultimately, the real difference will come if Scotland believes in their own abilities, because despite their shameful performance against Wales, this is a good team. Here’s hoping they prove it this time around.