Scotland are not built on the hope that they’ll do well in the RBS Six Nations, but the belief that they will, says head coach Vern Cotter.
The New Zealander’s final campaign in the championship begins with Ireland, the favourites in many eyes, with a Scotland team that features three notable personnel choices.
Fraser Brown is preferred at hooker to the centurion Ross Ford, meaning that the front row that provided such a foundation for Scotland in the 2015-16 season is entirely absent from this starting team.
Huw Jones, who has not played since leaving the field with an injury after setting up Scotland’s try against Argentina in the second autumn test, is straight back into the side.
And John Barclay, arguably Scotland’s best loose forward in 2016 after his recall, misses out in the backrow squeeze with Josh Strauss, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson preferred to start.
For Cotter, there is continuity from the autumn matches and the choices of Brown, Strauss and Wilson reflect Glasgow’s outstanding form of late, but primarily a feeling of “nervousness and expectation” among the squad is what excites him.
“Are they confident? They shouldn’t be hoping, it should be a belief,” he said.
“There is belief that if we can get our hands on the ball then we can construct a game and if Ireland get hands on the ball we can put pressure on to get it back.
“But we know Ireland are a very good team. We know we will have to be at our best.
“Individually and collectively we will have to fight for every inch of that pitch for every minute if we want to get close to them.”
Jones’ selection – Duncan Taylor has returned to Saracens to work on his comeback, Mark Bennett is on the bench and Matt Scott misses out entirely – was no surprise as it was flagged by attack coach Jason O’Halloran earlier in the week, but must be a risk as he’s played not played a match since mid-November.
The Stormers centre went back to Cape Town, rehabbed his foot injury, did some of the pre-season sets with his Super Rugby club, but then rejoined Scotland.
“He hasn’t really played or trained with another team so the combinations are fresh for him,” said Cotter. “He was in fine form, we feel it is the right combination with Alex (Dunbar) and he is an exciting player.
“His stamina was the first thing we had to look at. He has come through training sessions and ticked all the boxes.
“Although he hasn’t had the games, he still seems to have the reflexes. We have had two weeks training with a bit of opposition at times so we feel he is comfortable there.”
Furthermore, he continued, Jones adds another player who can create attacking chances.
“Everyone knows Stuart (Hogg) and Tommy (Seymour) and Sean (Maitland). If we have another player who can step and run and take the outside break, and have a good complement with Alex taking the shorter lines over the gain line, we think that’s a good mix.”
Brown’s greater versatility, his defence and his ability over the ball as an ex-backrower won him the vote over Ford while Cotter wants the back row as selected to counter Ireland’s lineout defensively, that being the setpiece where the Irish launch most of their scoring plays, he said.
But Ireland will surely target Scotland in the scrummage, where Allan Dell and Zander Fagerson continue after the autumn. Gordon Reid and Simon Berghan – just three starts for Edinburgh this season but preferred to Jon Welsh as back up – are the front row replacements.
“We know we have to do without Alastair Dickinson and WP Nel, but we did so in the autumn and the scrum went reasonably well,” added Cotter. Having the experience of Ford on the bench will help Berghan, and the coach likes his impact replacements, the in-form Tim Swinson, Barclay and a recalled Duncan Weir.
Scotland will try to pressure the Irish half-backs, trying to force Paddy Jackson into the sort of errors four years ago that effectively cost Ireland that game, and to disrupt Conor Murray, whatever the Lions scrum-half’s recent complaints.
“He is a key member of their team and there will be times when he is involved, and we will have to put that pressure on,” added Cotter.
Team: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); Sean Maitland (Saracens), Huw Jones (Stormers), Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors); Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester, capt); Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors); Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Stade Toulousain); Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), John Barclay (Scarlets), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Weir (Edinburgh), Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors).