TOKYO — It has been decidedly low-key this week in and around the Scotland team base in the opulent Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa in the Shinagawa area of Tokyo. Not in a bad way. It just feels like after nearly three months of training camps and ever-increasing hype, there is nothing left to say or do — it is now time to get into the action. And while they might not be shouting it from the rooftops, there is definitely a deep-rooted sense of belief within the group that tomorrow’s World Cup opener against Ireland is a match they can win.
There is good reason for this optimism. The recent record between the nations might not make for pretty reading from a Scottish perspective — with Ireland having come out on top in six of the last seven meetings — but there is a feeling that the two sides have followed different trajectories since Joe Schmidt’s team defeated Gregor Townsend’s lot 13-23 at Murrayfield during the last Six Nations.
The theory is that Ireland are not the force they were at the start of the year when they were coming off the back of an excellent win over New Zealand in November. Their senior players, such as Rory Best and Johnny Sexton, are still there and still battling but are more error-prone and can’t quite dominate games in the way they once did.
Ireland might have reached number one in the world rankings through their back-to-back wins over Wales during the World Cup warm-up schedule, but there is also a vulnerability about them which was exposed by England the week before. The loss of key backs Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, and Robbie Henshaw can’t have helped.
Meanwhile, Scotland are a more accomplished all-round proposition and much closer to full strength than they were then. The availability of key players Duncan Taylor, Hamish Watson, John Barclay, and WP Nel — who are all big players and key leaders — makes them a far more formidable proposition than they were back in February.
Unlike the Scotland sides which dragged their way through the late 1990s and into the first decade of the current century, this current crop of players are not only physically and technically able to compete against the likes of Ireland, they also — crucially — believe they can compete.
Years of one-sided results and miserly Lions representations had created a tartan cringe that the Scottish rugby media is still trying to shake off, but there is no trace of that corrosive self-doubt in the likes of Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Darcy Graham — who have been brought up to fear nobody and to never doubt their own ability.
In Scotland we use the word ‘gallus’. It is epitomised by scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, who is no longer the captain of the side but remains the heart and brain of the operation.
Laidlaw might be just short of 5ft 8ins in height, but he stands with his head held high and his chest puffed out. He barks instructions at the big men in front of him with the authority of a sergeant major and has absolutely no problem kicking the leather off the ball when the young turks outside are straining on the leash for a chance to let rip.
Townsend would love to move on from the 33-year-old to a younger and zippier model such as Ali Price, and has tried to a few times, but he just can’t shake Laidlaw off. There too much rugby knowledge and self-confidence there.
The locals in Japan love Laidlaw — or ‘Mr Greig’ as they call him. He is mobbed in the streets when the players go for a walk, and he spent an hour at the team’s official welcoming ceremony last week signing autographs while the usual poster-boys kicked their heels in the corner.
‘Mr Greig’ will be directing operations tomorrow.That selection, along with a few others, gives an insight into Townsend’s mindset going into this tournament. He has gone for experience with 630 caps littered through tomorrow’s starting XV, which eclipses by quite some distance the previous record for most caps in a single Scotland side, which was 581 against France in 2003, and against England in 2011. In almost every marginal call, he has gone for the man with the most caps — Ryan Wilson ahead of Blade Thomson at No 8, Laidlaw ahead of Price at scrum-half, and Tommy Seymour ahead of Darcy Graham on the wing.
The one thing that has consistently undermined Scotland’s attempts to establish themselves on a level footing with the big boys has been costly mistakes at key moments.
In that recent Six Nations game against Ireland, the win was there for the taking, and a couple of silly errors cost the boys in blue, including a silly mix-up at the back between Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland that gifted Conor Murray Ireland’s first try. It was a similar situation when Ireland came out on top in Dublin in 2018 when a Pete Horne interception gifted Jacob Stockdale a try, and then Huw Jones butchered a walk-in for Hogg, which amounted to a 14-point swing in a match which was much closer than the 28-8 final score-line suggests.
The selection of so many experienced players speaks of a desire to minimise this sort of slip-up. Townsend has not turned his back on the ‘have-a-go’ philosophy which has characterised his coaching career, but there is now an acceptance that his team needs to be smarter about when to throw caution to the wind, and when to play the percentages. Wisdom comes from experience.
The weather predictions for tomorrow may not be as biblical as they were earlier in the week, but it is still going to be wet and windy at the Yokohama International Stadium — so accuracy will be key. Scotland got to where they are by playing like boys who don’t give a damn. It is time to show that they have learned some lessons and grown up if they want to take their development to the next level.