So what went wrong? Many will give a blunt answer: the present crop of players aren’t good enough to compete at the highest level, certainly not good enough to do so for a whole match.
What was disappointing was that, after having had good spells against both New Zealand and South Africa, Scotland descended into mediocrity at best against Tonga. Yet the problem goes deeper. To say so is not to offer excuses for the present team or for their coaches. It is simply to state a fact. We have been also-rans in the Six Nations since Italy joined the tournament. Actually, their presence has more than once spared our blushes by allowing us to win at least one match.
Of course there have been some very good results, two victories against South Africa and two against Australia since 2000. But these have been gleams of light in the prevailing darkness. Only once in this period have we won as many as three matches in the Six Nations tournament, while, in the last three World Cups, we have never beaten a team we weren’t expected to beat.
The deep-lying problems have been articulated clearly in this paper by David Ferguson and others, some of them readers. What of the immediate future? Whoever takes over as coach, perhaps as a temporary stop-gap, will have only a few days with the national squad before the Calcutta Cup game at, alas, Twickenham, on 2 February. He can’t be expected to work miracles, even though we may hope that, as sometimes happens, a new coach freshens things up a bit. That said, any improvement will be up to the players themselves, and the team that starts at Twickenham will, for obvious reasons, be mostly drawn from the squad assembled in the autumn. There is no neglected pool of talent to draw on.
Under Andy Robinson the team has been aspiring to play a more ambitious free-flowing game. It hasn’t, except for odd moments, brought this off. The first reason for failure to do so has been the chronic lack of quick ball. Consequently we have been on the back foot. Perhaps judgment has been lacking. The All Blacks are the masters of the breakdown, and this is partly because individual players know when and how to commit themselves to it, and when it is more sensible to stand off. I doubt if this judgment can be taught. Players have to be encouraged to use their intelligence.
In Aberdeen on Saturday, intelligent appreciation of the situation was too often lacking. When we were camped on the Tongan line for ages in the first half, it was surprising that, having failed to score a try from the maul, we didn’t split the lineout to repeat the move that gave Henry Pyrgos a try against South Africa. Perhaps it would have been intelligent to kick penalties rather than seeking to score a try. It would be interesting to know how often we have put a penalty into touch on the five-metre mark in recent years and how often a try has resulted. I think the statistics are against it. Will Greenwood recently remarked that England haven’t scored a try from that position against top-flight opposition since 2007. They have, however, tried it often enough.
Coaches and captains don’t seem to agree but, to my mind, it’s daft to opt for a scrum when awarded a penalty or free kick. This is because the scrum laws and the referees’ interpretation of them are likewise daft. Time and again one sees a scrum result in a penalty or free kick even before the ball has been put in. Why take the chance that the referee won’t rule against you? Anyway, why does one never see a planned move from a free kick? I would suggest the team should watch a video of Scotland’s first try against Wales at Cardiff in 1984 to see what is possible.
Our failure to score tries has become notorious. Against Argentina a couple of weeks ago, Vincent Clerc scored his 34th try for France. The Scotland team that played Tonga can’t muster that number between them.
Now Clerc is an exceptional winger, fast, light-footed, alert and brave, but only a few of his tries are the result of individual brilliance. In contrast, we have had good wingers who haven’t scored many tries – the top-try scorer in the present side is Sean Lamont with eight in 70 matches. A poor record but how often has he been given the ball in space? Clerc scores so many because the French tend to look for space rather than contact and pass the ball for him to run on to. Good advice; easy to state, harder to put in practice if your inside backs don’t see space. Once again, if they don’t, it’s often because, deprived of quick ball, they are on the back foot when they receive it.
You don’t need to score tries to win matches, but you sure as anything lose games if you concede them. The try count in November was 10-4 against us. Too many missed tackles; work for the defence coach, Matt Taylor. England are not a great side, but they run hard, and will surely score tries if our tackling and defensive alignment don’t improve. Fortunately, it’s easier to coach defence than attack.
It was neither a surprise nor a disgrace to lose to New Zealand and South Africa – and, indeed, we had the opportunities to beat the Springboks. It was, however, shocking to lose to such a limited, if determined and hard-working side as Tonga.
What next? There is nothing the present squad and their coaches can do to solve the deep-rooted problems of Scottish rugby, but we can hope that they take a good look at themselves and raise their game, even at Twickenham, so often the graveyard of our hopes. Actually, especially at Twickenham.