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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Scotland’s pivotal 2023 hangs on two games against the team they can’t beat

Ireland recorded their 7th win in a row against Scotland last March,
Ireland recorded their 7th win in a row against Scotland last March,

World Cup years, more’s the pity, have taken on far more importance than they ever should have.

There’s a natural tendency now to wipe the slate completely clean. I remember this first happening with Scotland in 2003. On returning from an unhappy tournament in Australia, the Scots threw the baby out with the bathwater.

A succession of quality players – including the current head coach – were unceremoniously shown the door. Matt Williams took over and blooded a host of young bucks but the Six Nations whitewash that followed was all too predictable.

Williams, laughably out of his depth, piloted the team to just three wins in 18 months – over Samoa, a Japanese touring team consisting mostly of students, and Italy.

The latter match was dismal, won 18-10 at Murrayfield (six Chris Paterson penalties, what else?) and Scotland only just avoided back-to-back whitewashes.

Williams was shown the door and still has the worst record of any Scottish coach, ever.

Another minefield in 2023?

2023 could be the same kind of minefield. It’s a big Six Nations, followed by a long summer of prep, then the World Cup in France.

By the end of the year we could have a raft of player retirements, a head coach moving on, and the future could look very foggy indeed.

The likeliehood is that Gregor Townsend, voluntarily or not, will not be Scotland’s head coach by next November.

He’d probably have to go if Scotland failed to qualify for the last eight of the World Cup again. It’s only happened twice before, in 2011 and 2019, and of course Gregor was in charge in Japan.

Six years is a long time as an international head coach these days, as well. Only Warren Gatland has hung around for any more time than that in recent years, and he was consistently successful for Wales.

Plus Gregor may have other lingering ambitions. Depending on who you speak to, he still fancies coaching somewhere in France before he hangs up his trackies.

Or perhaps there’s an overseeing role, a re-cast ‘director of rugby’ post at Murrayfield, like his mentor and friend Ian McGeechan had.

The nemesis in the way

In the meantime, 2023 has Gregor’s old nemesis Ireland foursquare in the way of what he wants, every direction he takes.

A bottom line for the Six Nations must be three home wins – against Wales, the Irish and Italy. None of the three are remotely a given.

Wales should resurge under the returning Gatland, the Italians are on the up (although the rout by South Africa’s IIs in November shows there’s still a way to go).

As for Ireland, they’ve had Scotland’s number under Townsend so unequivocally that it’s no-one’s even counting anymore.

Really, the two games against the Irish – at Murrayfield on March 12, and in the Stade de France on October 7 – are central to Scotland’s entire year. After seven defeats on the bounce, is anyone particularly confident about either game? If so, what evidence do you have for that?

Similarly, the World Cup opener is against another team Scotland have had recent issues with, the reigning champions South Africa. Surely they won’t lay an egg like they did in the 2019 opener in Yokohama, but where are the reasons to be optimistic?

Scotland badly need to recover the spirit of 2021. Wins at Twickenham and Paris – both behind closed doors then – are probably too much to hope for. But the resilience and fight they showed – even in the two defeats that spring – were the best we’ve seen under Townsend.

That level of performance is the bottom-line for 2023, surely.

Healy a more than decent acquisition

Edinburgh on Wednesday confirmed the signing of Ben Healy, the 23-year-old Munster stand-off who qualifies for Scotland by virtue of his Glasgow-born mum.

A couple of years ago Glasgow Warriors were very interested in Healy, whose star was on the rise at the time. He opted to sign a new deal to stay at home but hasn’t got much a crack of the whip since then, falling to third on Munster’s depth chart at 10.

However as a replacement last weekend, Healy scored a last-gasp try and converted it to win the game at Ulster. In hindsight his contract negotiations were probably complete by then, sadly for him.

Healy’s certainly close to the finished article as a 10, big, a good distributor and a really good goalkicker – a 90% hit rate this season. And unlike Blair Kinghorn, he’s been a 10 all the way up through age-grade, including Ireland Under-20s.

The idea is that Healy will be initially be cover for Kinghorn during September’s World Cup, and thereafter competition. Charlie Savala has been decent if not startling as reserve 10. Jaco van der Walt is out of contract shortly and hasn’t seen much of the stand-off berth for a while.

The need for a succession plan at 10

Might it go further than that? There’s no commitment – yet – to Scotland, although it’s rumoured to have been part of the discussions.

There’s no evidence other than my own assumptions for the belief Finn Russell might well finish with international rugby after the World Cup. But Scotland need to put in place a succession plan anyway.

Ross Thompson at Glasgow, mostly injured this season, is the other established future option.

The 20-year-old Fin Smith of Northampton is also still considered a target. Eddie Jones had him train with England at the end of the Autumn Tests, but he never saw the field. Just like what happened with Cam Redpath.

Whether Steve Borthwick plays those games with the dual qualified players with as much relish as Eddie did remains to be seen.

But if you were Fin, would you fancy your chances of getting past Owen Farrell and/or Marcus Smith to get to international rugby? Or would you have a better chance with Scotland?