Nervousness flutters amid the Scotland side and coach Vern Cotter welcomes it.
It wasn’t long ago when the Scots approached the Six Nations thinking merely of avoiding the wooden spoon. Now they believe they can knock off two wins, potentially three with some luck.
Cotter’s influence, along with outstanding results by Glasgow and, to a lesser extent, Edinburgh in Europe have emboldened Scotland to be its most optimistic in years. The coach says it’s time to show how much they have improved, starting with a tough opener against Ireland on Saturday at Murrayfield.
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”Being a little bit nervous means you’re sharper and more on edge. You need that,” Cotter said.
”You need to be wary of the opposition. Especially against these guys. We need to be sharp. We need to be able to adapt. They’ll have plays we haven’t seen, we need to adapt to them.”
Those butterflies aren’t only about expectations. They’re also a deserved respect for Ireland.
Scotland has beaten Ireland only three times since the championship expanded in 2000. The last time the Irish were at Murrayfield, in 2015, they won 40-10 and left with the Six Nations title.
Scotland also isn’t a good starter having lost every opening match bar one, 11 years ago.
The buildup has been low-key apart from Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray complaining after his Munster club beat Glasgow for the second time this season that Glasgow players deliberately targeted his standing leg when he was launching box kicks.
Scotland captain and counterpart Greig Laidlaw dismissed the notion, saying it was pressure as usual.
”Will we be putting pressure on him? For sure we will,” Laidlaw said. ”He’s not going to come to Murrayfield and get an armchair ride. We need to do that to every Irish player but we can expect the same back.”
The only talking point of Scotland’s selection was Fraser Brown’s promotion to a start ahead of 103-cap hooker Ross Ford. Cotter prefers Brown’s energy and defense early, and Ford’s nous late. Also, South Africa-based centre Huw Jones, the backline star in November, has had little game time since then because of a foot injury, but Scotland believes he will last into the second half before Mark Bennett is introduced.
Ireland brought in Iain Henderson to partner Devin Toner in the second row after Donnacha Ryan couldn’t train last week because of a knee ligaments injury. Ryan was OK this week and should be available for the trip to Rome next week.
Coach Joe Schmidt expects flyhalf Jonathan Sexton to fully recover from a calf injury in time to start in the third round on Feb. 25, when France visit Dublin.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw (captain); Josh Strauss, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Zander Fagerson, Fraser Brown, Allan Dell. Reserves: Ross Ford, Gordon Reid, Simon Berghan, Tim Swinson, John Barclay, Ali Price, Duncan Weir, Mark Bennett.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Jack McGrath. Reserves: Niall Scannell, Cian Healy, John Ryan, Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier, Kieran Marmion, Ian Keatley, Tommy Bowe.