Dave Denton today put Scotland colleagues on alert to meet fire with fire when the annual Six Nations Championship opens with a visit to Ireland on Sunday.
If the French are the great unpredictables – expect the unexpected against them, one internationalist said recently – teams know exactly what they are going to get with Ireland and, having faced them three times (two wins) in a 17-cap career, Denton speaks with authority. “There is just no getting away from the fact that games against the Irish are decided on the set-piece and physicality at the breakdown,” declared Denton who is hoping for an early present ahead of his 23rd birthday three days after Sunday’s match. “Ireland always want to dominate sides up front with forward power and the first 20 minutes will see us having to weather a storm.
“The longer we stay in the game the better our chances.”
Last season, on the retreat from an opening-day defeat by England at Twickenham, Denton was trenchant in his belief that better times were around the corner; sure enough, wins over Ireland and Italy followed, to provide a rare third-placed finish. This time the No.8, who will form a new-look back row with skipper Kelly Brown and blindside flanker Ryan Wilson, is equally upbeat.
“Results didn’t go our way in the Autumn against Australia and South Africa but we really did learn a lot in that company.
“We have also got a few players back from injury and together with the contributions of the younger lads a few months ago it is easy to understand why Scott Johnson is saying this has been one of his hardest selections.
“When we beat Ireland at Murrayfield last year we did so on just 20 per cent possession. That spoke volumes for our defence and we need to repeat that. We’d take a similar outcome, of course we would. But we want to get quicker ball to get our backs more into the game this time.”
Ireland are renowned for what is known as “choke” tackling where the ball carrier is effectively bound up and prevented from getting the pass away. But a feature of that previous encounter was the way Scotland combated a tactic Ireland virtually invented.
“Look,” says Denton, “the only way that works is if you allow them to dictate at the rucks.
“We might have spent a lot of time in defence in last year’s fixture but when it came to breakdowns we got on the front foot. Teams can’t choke tackle if you are going forward while our set-piece has improved a lot.”
When Edinburgh overcame Munster at Murrayfield with Denton on board this season a cornerstone was the way the visiting line-out featuring Irish legend Paul O’Connell and Donncha Ryan was dismantled.
Ryan is missing on this occasion but it was still a measure of the feat that he took four more line-out catches than any player in the 2013 Six Nations.
Interim coach Scott Johnson might have been right to aver this week: “I’m not going to throw that Edinburgh – Munster result out there because they’ll throw back what happened in the return match.”
Nevertheless, the encounter showed that Scottish players have the capability to unravel celebrated Irish forwards although Denton warns that home attacks are likely to come from unlikely sources.
“I’ve found that Ireland have this ability more than most to get deep into your half from kick-offs and we have to be ready for that.”
On a personal level Denton is in better shape probably than at any time since his debut came from off the bench against Ireland at Murrayfield in a 2011 World Cup warm-up game.
“It is a special fixture for me as I got my first Scotland start in Dublin two years ago as well as the win last year. In contrast with last season I go in with almost a full run of games behind me; I’ve only missed one for Edinburgh all season and that was due to a minor injury.
“The body is willing and able and there are also the benefits that come from getting my new contract sorted out with Edinburgh at the end of last year.
“Everything was put to bed early leaving me to really concentrate on trying to make an impression on the Six Nations.”
If Ireland were to lose it would be the first time in the 14 years since Italy were introduced to the tournament that they have gone five matches without a win. Key opponent from the perspective of a team whose only wins since the opening round of last year’s Six Nations have been against the United States, Canada and Samoa, will be Scots goal-kicker Greig Laidlaw.
Denton agrees it is a massive boost to find the little maestro able to keep the scoreboard ticking at every opportunity and last year Laidlaw’s 88 per cent strike rate was superior even to Leigh Halfpenny, the tournament’s top scorer.
“Greig is such a class act,” says Denton, but it will need double the possession achieved in last season’s fixture, at least, in a match which appears tailor-made for someone as rumbustious as Denton who might just be about to come of age in a dark blue jersey.