Gregor Townsend must cure travel-sick Scots to enter top tier of coaches

After finally downing their neighbours to the south, the Rugby Insider feels Saturday’s tie with Ireland will be the true test of this Scotland side…

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You could not blame Scotland players for puffing out their chests a little as they stride off the team bus on reaching Lansdowne Road this Saturday afternoon.

Slayers of the English and the first Scots to get their hands on the Calcutta Cup for a decade, the men in blue have every reason to approach their penultimate game of the 2018 Six Nations with burgeoning confidence, satisfied that the horrors of their opening-day implosion to Wales in Cardiff was, but a blip on their march up the table and the world rankings under head coach Gregor Townsend.

Since taking over from Vern Cotter at the end of last season’s championship, Townsend has appeared to the manor-born in the role.

His record as Glasgow boss was an impressive one, taking the Warriors to a first Celtic League title in 2015 and turning them into consistent PRO12/14 play-off participants and trophy contenders.

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For sure, the Champions Cup element had always let the Glaswegians down, with failure to qualify for the quarter-finals as predictable as Celtic winning at home. Yet Townsend even achieved the previously unattainable in his final season at the helm in Scotstoun ,when Glasgow claimed a place in the European knockout stages for the first time in the club’s history.

Beating England two weeks ago has similarly earned the former fly-half plenty of kudos at Test level, the 25-13 victory a triumph for Townsend as his side blew the auld enemy away in a thunderous first-half performance for which Eddie Jones’s men could find no answer.

Coming on the heels, not just of a Six Nations victory over France in the previous round, but back-to-back wins over Australia over the summer and November series, it has marked Townsend out as a future Scottish coaching great capable of reaching the heights Ian McGeechan did for his country and with the British & Irish Lions.

Which brings us to this weekend and Scotland’s visit to Irish shores.

For if Townsend is to be considered right up there in the coaching pantheon, he is going to have start winning games like this one, against a serious team away from the comforts of Murrayfield.

There will be no bagpiper on the roof of the Aviva on Saturday, no spine-tingling, unaccompanied rendition of Flower of Scotland. Over in Dublin, there will be just the distant memory of the Scots’ single previous Six Nations victory on Irish soil, a 2010 win at Croke Park engineered by the boot of Dan Parks.

It has by now been well chronicled that Scotland have an awful away record on their Six Nations travels, only six wins on 46 excursions from Edinburgh and four of those coming in everybody’s happy hunting ground of Rome. Only a solitary victory in Cardiff in 2002, that one in Croker eight years ago and a whole heap of miserable flights home.

Even Scotland’s most recent Calcutta Cup win prior to this year’s, back in Murrayfield in 2008, was followed by a defeat the following week to Italy in Rome. When it comes to the Six Nations, the travel-sick Scots need a paper bag to go with the wing and a prayer.

But wait, comes the cry, didn’t Scotland beat Australia in Sydney last summer?

Well of course that is true, yet Townsend followed that fantastic performance, a 24-19 win, by unforgivably losing in Fiji just seven days later.

This is not to say we should expect Scotland to stay true to form this weekend, turning up and then rolling over for an Ireland side taking its final step towards a Grand Slam-deciding afternoon in Twickenham seven days later. They will have resolved to prove that their Cardiff reverse in round one was just a blip and not a return to type.

Let us not forget the way they turned over a sleep-walking Ireland in Edinburgh on the opening day of the 2017 championship. This is a talented and attack-minded Townsend team are capable of cutting teams open and one determined to keep building and move up from the B class of World Rugby’s tier-one teams.

Yet in Joe Schmidt’s Ireland they face their most formidable challenge yet under the new head coach.

This a competitive fixture on foreign soil with plenty at stake for a home side chasing a first Slam since 2009, furious with itself for losing at Murrayfield last time around, and intent on maintaining the unbeaten Six Nations home record they have built on their own boss’s watch since he took over from Declan Kidney for the 2014 championship.

Something has to give and it may be that Gregor Townsend’s legacy-building will have to be put on hold for at least one more away game.

Rugby Insider’s tip: Ireland have been quicker out of the blocks than a Keith Earls sprint and have led in all three Championship games at the short whistle so far. That makes Half-Time (-4) Handicap punt at 5/6 as sweet as Jonny Sexton’s right boot.

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