Allan Massie: Will Scotland ever turn the corner?

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RECENT record, form and location all point to an England victory. They lose very few matches at Twickenham, where we haven’t won for donkeys’ years. Only Euan Murray and Jim Hamilton of today’s Scotland XV were even alive when we last did so, and they would scarcely have been out of nappies. So, even when a few weeks ago we were optimistically calculating which matches we might win this season, most of us would have discounted the England game.

Recent events have shortened the odds on an England win. They’ve had to make very few changes in the tournament, and today’s XV, with Courtney Lawes making his first start, Mick Brown back after missing Dublin, and Exeter’s very talented Jack Nowell in place of Johnny May, is the strongest Stuart Lancaster has been able to field. In contrast, we have lost Richie Gray, who is at least as important to Scotland as Lawes to England, and now, very sadly, Alex Dunbar – perhaps the outstanding centre in the Six Nations so far. We may not miss Dunbar in attack because Matt Scott is a very dangerous runner, and proven tryscorer at international level, but Dunbar has been the organiser of our defence, and his ability to steal ball when he has made a tackle is second to none among centres in the northern hemisphere now that Brian O’Driscoll has retired.

Dejected Scotland trudge off after Italy defeat. Picture: Jane Barlow

Dejected Scotland trudge off after Italy defeat. Picture: Jane Barlow

Jim Hamilton, of course, is a pretty good replacement for the elder Gray. He may indeed strengthen our set scrum for, in recent seasons, the set scrum has almost always gone better when he has been playing. Moreover, with Hamilton and David Denton, who is making his first start of the tournament, our ability to resist and disrupt England’s favourite driving maul is at least enhanced. Both are adept at getting a hand over and on to the ball, sometimes tearing it from an opponent’s grasp.

Denton’s return is welcome because of his ability to get repeatedly over the gain-line. This of course is valuable only if he is immediately supported by others quickly in position to provide Greig Laidlaw with the quick ball that he didn‘t get against Italy. On the other hand, Denton drives so powerfully and at such a low body angle that he quite often goes a couple of yards at least beyond the gain-line, and is liable to be isolated and penalised for holding on to the ball after a tackle – if reinforcements are slow in arriving.

It’s been an irritating season for us. As I remarked after the Italian match we have lost three games by a total of 13 points. Nobody has overwhelmed us, not even outplayed us. Arguably, we have beaten ourselves each time. We certainly had ample opportunities to beat Wales, while against Italy we were guilty of scarcely assisted suicide. In one way this is more depressing than some of the much heavier defeats we have endured in recent years. It’s been as if whenever we seem to be about to turn a corner and discover how to win, we find the corner has been extended and goes on and on.

Apart from the attacks of white-line fever which cost us the Welsh match and the inability both to produce quick ball and cope with Italy’s driving maul, two other reasons for our defeats have been fairly obvious. First, we have conceded too many penalties; second we have lost the kicking contest, both our reception of opposition kicks and our own kick-and-chase being poor. Eradicate the tendency to give away soft penalties and improve the kicking game, and one thinks we might be the match of anyone in the Six Nations.

This is a pretty good England team, but by no means an outstanding one – not yet anyway. They were very good in Cardiff (after the first ten minutes), only average (despite scoring six tries) against Italy, and very much second-best in Dublin in a match which they never for a moment looked like winning.

If you took Italy as the yardstick, then you might say Scotland have no chance today. This might however be misleading. One has the impression that the Italians suffer from an inferiority complex when they play England , especially at Twickenham, and never really believe they can beat them, while they approach the Scotland match in a very different frame of mind.

Quite often, when one looks at the respective line-ups of England and Scotland, one can’t see any real chance of winning, because England look that bit better in almost every position. You reflect that very few Scots would get into the England XV if they happened to be English. Yet that isn’t one’s impression today. Looking at the starting XV’s, man for man, there’s not much to choose between them. Indeed there’s no reason why anyone in the Scotland XV, eying up his opposite number, shouldn’t say “I’m every bit as good as he is”, and in some cases, “I’m better than he is”. Self-belief matters. The Scots should reflect that it’s been a few moments of poor judgment which have cost them three matches this tournament. Make the right decisions and victory is possible.

And I hope Finn Russell remembers that a drop-goal is worth three points and that to come away from a visit to the opposing 22 with three points is a success – provided of course that you don’t immediately give the points back by mucking up the restart.

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