Vern Cotter believes Scotland can head into this year’s Six Nations with a sense of belief rather than hope.
The 2017 staging of the world’s oldest and most famous international competition gets under way at BT Murrayfield on Saturday afternoon with the visit of Ireland amidst a glow of positive vibes, with a host of ex-players and pundits identifying this as the best Scotland side in two decades.
The Scots won six games out of ten last year, including two in the Six Nations, and came within a whisker of beating Australia. The upward trajectory in terms of performance was clear to see and Cotter said confidence was high after naming his team.
“They shouldn’t be hoping, it a should be belief,” said the Kiwi coach, who will make way for Gregor Townsend after the tournament. “There is belief that if we can get our hands on the ball we can construct a game, and if they get hands on the ball we can put pressure on to get it back.”
Cotter is not a man for bombast, however, and for all the upbeat talk and evident sense of excitement he has for this last challenge in the job, a healthy dose of caution was never far away.
Ireland are second favourites with the bookies to win the title, though many experts are tipping them to lift the trophy, and will be confident themselves about facing opposition they have held a dominant record over for some time.
Coming off the back of an autumn in which the Irish took the scalps of both All Blacks and Wallabies there is no hiding away from the fact that tomorrow presents a huge test of Scotland’s perceived renaissance.
“Look guys, Ireland are a very good team. We know we will have to be at our best,” continued the coach. “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.”
Cotter has made three changes to the team that started the final November Test against Georgia at Kilmarnock, with Stormers outside centre Huw Jones returning after proving his fitness despite not playing since getting injured against Argentina in the second game of that series.
Glasgow No.8 Josh Strauss comes into the back row, while Fraser Brown gets the nod at hooker, with the 102-times capped Ross Ford on the bench.
The Edinburgh-born, South Africa-based Jones has been a revelation in his three appearances for Scotland so far, scoring two tries in his home debut against the Aussies and setting up Sean Maitland’s match-winner against the Pumas.
He suffered a foot injury in creating that try and hasn’t played since due to the southern hemisphere being in off-season but he has come through extensive fitness testing at Scotland’s Oriam training base and Cotter is sure the 23-year-old is ready.
“We thought he played well [in November] and he has slotted straight back in with Alex [Dunbar] next to him. We felt that was the right mix. He is an exciting player.
“He has come through training sessions and ticked all the boxes. Although he hasn’t had the games, he still seemed to have the reflexes. We have had two weeks training with a bit of opposition so we feel he is comfortable there.”
Duncan Taylor’s fitness wasn’t considered quite at the required level and he has been released back to his club Saracens, where it is hoped he will play 20 minutes this weekend.
With the selection of Strauss alongside Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson in the back row, Scotland will be hoping they can match the physicality and explosiveness of a formidable Irish pack.
“We didn’t think Josh was at the top of his game in November but we feel he has made a real effort to improve.
“His carry is important. If they put two defenders on him that should free up space for the likes of Huw Jones and people with fast feet.
“We want to attack the game and not be on the back foot. Those players give us the chance to play off the front foot.
“It’s a team that had a bit of time together in the autumn, although we’re still without [injured props] WP Nel and Ally Dickinson.
“The midfield pairing did well for us, the back three have been playing well, the two Gray brothers, the loose forwards, it’s a mixture of defending their line-outs and carrying the ball forward, putting a bit of speed into the game, especially around the ruck, and [scrum-half] Greig [Laidlaw] and [stand-off] Finn [Russell] to run the show, that’s the plan.”