Former Scotland star Alan Tait believes this year’s RBS Six Nations Championship, which gets under way on Saturday, is unlikely to produce a grand slam winner.
“It’s so close at the top that the title will probably be won with a defeat,” said Tait, a member of the last Scottish team to win the tournament (then Five Nations) back in 1999.
In his first interview since taking a break from coaching Newcastle a few weeks ago, the cross-code legend who represented the British and Irish Lions in rugby union, and Great Britain’s rugby league team in a World Cup final, is tipping Scotland to make a winning start against England at Murrayfield.
Drawing on extensive knowledge of the English Premiership, Tait says: “One player I’d be wary of is Owen Farrell who is new to the international scene but has a good rugby head on him like his dad, Andy, who was starting out in rugby league as I was moving on. From what I’ve seen of young Owen though, he might also be short of a wee bit of pace at the highest level which was a criticism laid against Andy.
“Whoever England put out it can be argued this transitional period they find themselves in is the best time to get them.
“There’s a new [interim] coach in Stuart Lancaster and I’m looking forward to seeing the difference Andy Farrell himself makes compared to Mike Ford as a defence coach.
“I don’t think Stuart’s style of play will vary too much from when he had charge of the English Saxons [second team] so there will be a few clues in the videos of their matches I know Scotland will have watched.
“England will try to address Scotland’s strength up front and do some damage head on.
“If Scotland can resist then I think they’ll be in business under new captain Ross Ford who I watched come through the ranks at Kelso Harlequins.
“It was a big call to convert Ross from flanker to hooker but it is paying dividends more than ever now. Some of Scotland’s best captains have been hookers and I’m thinking of the likes of Colin Deans.
“When Colin retired the natural successor was another hooker, Gary Callander. Ross won’t be a big talker and will prefer to lead by example; that will work.”
The few weeks Tait has been away from Falcons – “the new owners told me to take a break for a while and having let the club’s relegation fight get to me a bit I’m already feeling the benefits from standing back while club fortunes improve as players return from injury” – has allowed him to view rugby matters more clearly.
But he is convinced Newcastle’s Euan Murray can play a key role for Scotland, regardless of the fact two matches are on Sunday which rules the prop out on religious grounds.
“Euan has had a few 80 minute shifts this season which has helped bring on his fitness.
“At the World Cup last Autumn Scotland weren’t far away from beating England who, by comparison, have had to find quite a few new players. So, that is encouraging and overall it is going to be fascinating to see how this tournament works out.
“The Welsh have very interesting backs like Jonathan Davies and big George North who can be one of the stars if he gets decent possession. Ireland are never far away and it is easily overlooked that Italy beat France last time round.
“Which France will turn up now – the one that lost to Italy or the one who reached the World Cup final?
“What may count in France’s favour is having three of their five games at home.”
For Tait the competition provides the opportunity to look and learn as he plots his next move in the sport he has graced in one capacity or another for nearly 30 years.
“Looking back over the season I was getting myself up to 90 at Newcastle and needed the break the new owners told me to take,” he says. “I wasn’t myself but I’m sitting back now listening to other coaches and learning; it’s certainly been an experience to be at the thick end of things with Newcastle but one that will hopefully stand me in good stead in the longer term.”
Rugby certainly hasn’t seen the last of Alan Tait, now 47, whose also had a spell as defence coach with Scotland before leaving and earning his spurs at club level.