PITY poor Duncan Weir. What stand-off could look good with whistling Billy successfully going for an entry in the Guinness Book of Records, let alone a 23-year-old making his first start for his country.
The Glasgow pivot has been in tremendous form, impressing for the Rabo league leaders against Cardiff and with a bouncy late cameo against Ireland last week, but yesterday his starting debut was stopped emphatically in its tracks by a referee who turned what had promised to be a feast of running rugby into a staccato, attritional bout of trench warfare.
Stand-off has been Scotland’s most problematic position for almost two decades, with not even Gregor Townsend ever completely winning over the Scotland fans. Dan Parks may have done a job for his adopted country, but not since Craig Chalmers was in his pomp has anyone unambiguously claimed the Scotland No.10 jersey for their own. It was hoped that yesterday might go some way towards resolving a three-way scrap for the shirt between the ousted Ruaridh Jackson, his clubmate Weir and 21-year-old Tom Heathcote, who has really come on to a game for Bath.
In the event, quite how much this non-event would have enlightened interim coach Scott Johnson is impossible to tell. “I’m not sure really how good a game he had,” laughed Johnson afterwards. “He showed some good things and showed composure on the ball, but he simply wasn’t allowed to play. He was nervous before the start but he did OK.”
Weir heartily agreed, echoing his coach’s sense of frustration. “It was a tough day,” said Weir afterwards with a sigh. “It was pretty much nip and tuck the whole game, where we’d get a penalty and then they’d come back. That was the story of the game: both set-pieces struggled to get functioning.
“I was very frustrated but I was also happy with some of the small touches I had, but it was just unfortunate that the amount of touches was not higher. As a ten you’re expecting the ball maybe 60 times in the game – I got it nearer 25 times.”
Yet even then Weir was able to carve out what was comfortably Scotland’s most exciting break. That came in the second half when the stand-off took a flat pass from scrum-half Greig Laidlaw just inside his own half and chipped over the onrushing Welsh back line as it attempted to blitz Scotland’s possession. It was the right option, skilfully executed, with Weir hacking ahead as the ball landed.
As a youngster, the Rangers supporter was a promising Celtic youth team player who only took up rugby after the Parkhead club banned him from playing football for his school, and his deft kick ahead, which stopped just before the Wales line and forced Dan Biggar to carry over and touch down to concede a scrum five, showed he hasn’t lost his touch.
“It was an emotional day that started with a wee tear rolling down my face after the anthems, but what I’ll always remember is the roar of the crowd as I chased down that chip and chase down the middle of the pitch,” he said. “The extra boost I got there was great, and that’s a memory I’ll always cherish. The buzz after I made that tackle and got the five-metre scrum was great.”
That passage of play also indicated that Weir may possess the reserves of mental strength necessary to succeed at test level. That was not exactly a surprise because the feisty Glaswegian has already bounced back from a serious anterior cruciate ligament injury and has a well-deserved reputation as a self-confident, bubbly young soul. He certainly looks and sounds for all the world like a younger and only marginally more svelte version of the legendary Scotland and Lions loosehead Ian “Mighty Mouse” McLauchlan, and when it comes to accolades in Glasgow rugby few carry more weight.
This was undoubtedly a difficult match for the youngster yet he acquitted himself admirably in most respects.
There were definitely glimpses of those pre-match nerves Johnson had identified, particularly in a fantastically poor first-half box kick which led to a penalty for Wales and a shocking second-half pass that sped over the heads of the entire back division as it headed back towards the Scotland line.
Yet there were also some moments of quiet class that illuminated proceedings. There was the perfect hanging first restart that saw Scotland off the mark, followed by a nerveless grubber that landed inches from the touchline moments after a missed touch and that box kick must have frayed his nerves. There was his sublime crossfield kick which found touch deep in Wales’s 22, and then an enormous clearance after Stuart Hogg’s juggle in his own 22.
New young players invariably make errors, yet Weir responded well. “I was nervous beforehand, but as soon as the whistle blew I was focused on my role and responsibilities, my head was completely switched on,” he said. “There was a lot of geeing up and a lot of emotions. I tried to focus on the next job, but I’d find that at that next job we’d get in a bit of bother and they’d kick the three points – that was the story of the game.
“Of course I was frustrated, but you don’t get things your whole way all the time and you have to look at yourself as a team and learn from experiences like this. It wasn’t great as my first start but I really enjoyed it and hopefully will get to do it again.”
That, at least, is one thing he can be sure of.