SOME weeks ago John Beattie, buoyed up doubtless by Scotland’s successful summer tour, posted a blog saying in effect that Scotland would never have a better chance of beating New Zealand than they will have on Sunday, 11 November.
Well, obviously, we all hope that the victory, never achieved in more than a century of international rugby, will at last be ours but, just at the moment, John’s optimism might prompt his friends to advise that he lies down in a darkened room.
For other starry-eyed believers, here are some chilling figures. If the All Blacks have beaten Australia in the Bledisloe Cup by the time you read this, they will have chalked up a record 17 consecutive international wins. They haven’t indeed been beaten since August last year. In these 16 victories, they have scored 72 tries and their average points score a game has been 37.5. (By my calculation Scotland have scored 69 tries in their 65 Six Nations matches played since 2000.) A final figure to give you thought: coming into this Bledisloe Cup game, Richie McCaw has won 112 caps. The All Blacks have won 100 of these matches. Miracles happen, certainly; nevertheless ...
Andy Robinson has a longish injury list to worry him; this of course isn’t unusual, given the physicality of top-level rugby now. More disturbing still has been Edinburgh’s wretched form. Last season, Edinburgh regularly supplied half the Scotland XV. This season they have won only two of their seven matches, and one of these was against the new Italian club, Zebre, whom everyone so far has hunted down. They touched what one hopes will be the nadir when they were demolished by Saracens last week. I watched only the first half before going down to watch Selkirk v Biggar at Philiphaugh and haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the recording of the second-half rout. In that first 40 minutes, some of our best players in last year’s Six Nations – notably Greig Laidlaw, Ross Ford and David Denton – made a succession of the kind of mistakes often classed as schoolboy errors.
The best one can say is that it’s reasonable to hope they can never play as badly again. They have a chance to redeem themselves at Thomond Park tomorrow. Munster may not be quite the team they were, but they are still hard to beat anywhere and devilish hard in Limerick. Nevertheless, anyone who has aspirations to line up against New Zealand shouldn’t be daunted by that. Munster, however, having lost to Racing Metro in Paris last week, albeit with a bonus point, will be equally determined to get their Heineken show on the road.
Glasgow have been much better than Edinburgh – for this relief much thanks. For half-an-hour at Northampton they were very good indeed. Then the brilliant Pisi brothers cut them apart a couple of times before the interval, and a succession of injuries disrupted Glasgow. Even so, they were unfortunate not to pick up a losing bonus point. They will have had a tough match against Ulster before this column is in print, tough because Ulster currently look to be the best of the Irish teams.
The Glasgow forwards have been going very well. Mike Cusack may look like a prop who has strayed out of the old amateur days, but he is a terrific scrummager; unfortunately, however, he is a Yorkshireman. On the other side of the scrum, Ryan Grant has surely done enough to get the nod from Robinson for the New Zealand game. In the last couple of games, Ruaridh Jackson has been playing like the fly-half he promised to be, taking the ball at speed, kicking well from hand, tackling efficiently, asking questions of defences and distributing skilfully. One has the impression he is benefiting from Gregor Townsend‘s coaching; he is certainly attacking the line as Gregor himself used to.
At scrum-half, Henry Pyrgos has taken the opportunity given him by Chris Cusiter’s unfortunate injury and now looks a class player. I imagine Robinson will want Mike Blair, if fit, or Rory Lawson for the New Zealand and South Africa matches, but, with an eye to the future, may select Pyrgos for the Tongan game on 24 November. Finally, the Selkirk-Biggar game ended abruptly after 49 minutes when the referee was unfortunately injured. Neither touch judge was, it seems, sufficiently qualified to take over. Given that touch judges are now known as assistant referees and are frequently consulted by the man in the middle – “is a penalty enough or should it be a yellow card”? – this seems absurd. Surely the SRU should authorise one of the assistant referees to take over in such circumstances, even if he is only qualified to run a game at a lower level. A little common sense might not be a bad idea.