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Scotland should bench Darcy Graham if they want to beat Ireland and make the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals

Gregor Townsend may have to pick a team and plan which goes against his heartfelt principles if he is to avoid his second successive World Cup as Scotland’s head coach ending in the misery of a pool stage exit.

Having watched a largely second-string Scotland thrash Romania 84-0 in Lille on Saturday night, Townsend was as far from getting carried away as it is possible to be.

His demeanour instead was the careworn and maybe even conflicted restraint of a man contemplating some tough selection choices on Sunday, ahead of the coming weekend’s nerve-tingling single-match shootout with favourites Ireland in Paris.

A theory put forward by Townsend’s old coach, Sir Ian McGeechan, is the beautiful patterns being woven by Scotland’s midfield of Finn Russell at fly-half and the “Huwipulotu” centre duo of Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones are not what the Tartan Army need right now.

McGeechan was summarising for TV as the Scots racked up 12 tries against the Romanians, including four by the wing Darcy Graham. The past master recommended launching into the world number-one ranked Irish with a barrage of high kicks, with Hamish Watson, Chris Harris and Kyle Steyn selected at flanker, outside centre and right wing respectively, to carry and chase like the hounds of hell.

Once a bridgehead is established, maybe by half-time, then bring on the space-makers and pattern-weavers to close out the win Scotland need to make it through a pool they always knew would be daunting.

When the draw was made four years ago, South Africa were ranked first, Ireland fifth – and therefore in the second tier of pool seeds – and Scotland in the third tier at a lowly ninth.

Since then, 50-year-old Townsend, who is contracted to 2026, and a settled squad of coaches and players have hauled themselves up to fifth, with spectacular results like last February’s win over England at Twickenham.

But now they have another D-day of World Cup disappointment looming.

The precise task facing the Scots will be determined by Sunday evening’s meeting of South Africa and Tonga.

Whatever the requisite margin, they are charged yet again with snuffing out a power game that is also the hallmark of South Africa, who beat them on this World Cup’s opening weekend, and also in the pools in 2015.

You could spend many an entertaining 80 minutes watching Scotland’s backs running at space and soft shoulders, but McGeechan’s recommended first-half tactics might be better suited to a rainy night at Melrose or some other Borders hotbed, and not the wide open spaces of Stade de France this Saturday evening.

Scotland like to keep the number of rucks to a minimum, but their two nemeses in green jerseys specialise in that area. They blast relentlessly at every breakdown and moment of contact to make all their World Cup matches withering physical battles.

Scotland's right wing Kyle Steyn (L) is tackled during the France 2023 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between Scotland and Tonga at Stade de Nice in Nice, southern France on September 24, 2023. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images)
Kyle Steyn may be a better option against tough-tackling Ireland (Photo: Getty)

Ireland’s head to head record with Scotland is impressive. They have won 12 of the last 13 meetings dating back to February 2014, including a 27-3 victory in the pool at the 2019 World Cup in Japan that helped send Townsend’s Scots home too soon.

In the media conference after the Romania match, at which Scottish fans gave raucous support and came close to packing out a 50,000-capacity stadium, Townsend scoffed at the idea of Andy Farrell’s side worrying about their history of faltering at the business end of World Cups. Townsend said they were more likely to be highly confident on the back of 16 straight Test wins.

Scotland’s defence under assistant coach Steve Tandy “nilled” the Romanians but the Oaks had already lost 82-8 to Ireland and 76-0 to South Africa, so that form guide is similarly pointless.

What worked for Scotland against South Africa in the ultimately deflating 18-3 defeat in Marseille three weeks ago was the occasional penalty earned in the scrum, and sharp handling through the backs after a line-out – remember the move that should have ended with Graham passing to the beckoning Duhan van der Merwe?

Graham’s jinking break was a feature early in the Romania win, and he did pass this time, but it didn’t stick to Sam Skinner. The Scots cannot afford any such slips in Paris.

But in Lille, a slick loop move run by understudy fly-half Ben Healy off a solid line-out sent Graham on a line break in the 17th minute and Ali Price scored, then Graham added a solo 40-metre try through Romania’s porous defence and the Edinburgh flyer completed his hat-trick before half-time.

With Romania down to 13 men, Scotland had nailed the necessary bonus point by the 35th minute and Graham made 13 carries for 193 metres in the opening half. By the end, he had equalled Gavin Hastings’s Scotland World Cup record with a fourth try.

But while Graham is a fantastic broken-field runner, there was a cameo symbolic of Scottish frailty when he was turned over in the 50th minute by the chunky Romania centre Fonovai Tangimana clamping over him and keeping the Scots’ clear-out forwards at bay.

So Steyn is the more solid all-court choice, while a little of the Van der Merwe magic produced by the kilted convert from South Africa in scoring one of the tries of this year’s Six Nations in that Twickenham win would not go amiss now.

If Scotland rid themselves of their own line-out wobbles, and pile into an Irish line-out that notably misfired early in their own meeting with South Africa, a 13-8 win eight days ago, there is the makings of a platform on which Russell the undoubted first choice at fly-half can do his stuff – whether that is distributing or, maybe, a new approach of England-style kicking.

Back in December 2020, the South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber said of the notorious World Cup draw: “There’s no two ways about it, it’s funny to think one of either South Africa, Ireland or Scotland might not make it into the play-off stages.”

It hasn’t got any more amusing for the Scots in the meantime, and Townsend admitted he is still stewing about it now, but he and his squad can only afford positive thoughts in the tumultuous week to come.

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