Allan Massie: Scotland display offers hope

Scotland's fullback Stuart Hogg runs with the ball during the Six Nations international rugby union match between France and Scotland. Picture: Getty

Scotland's fullback Stuart Hogg runs with the ball during the Six Nations international rugby union match between France and Scotland. Picture: Getty

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COACHES tend to talk as much about performance as about results.

After this first Six Nations weekend, Stuart Lancaster can be happy with both, Joe Schmidt and Philippe Saint-André with the result but not the performance, Vern Cotter with the performance, not the result, and Warren Gatland and Jacques Brunel with neither. Irish dissatisfaction with performance reflects where they are, French where they should be, Scottish satisfaction with the performance, even in defeat, where we have been.

The result was disappointing because, at half-time, it seemed we might well go on to win. The second quarter of the game was the best we have played in an away Six Nations match for several years, probably since Andy Robinson’s honeymoon time. We were taking the game to France with panache and intelligence, and scored the sort of try that, as Norman Mair remarked some 40 years ago, we usually score only at unopposed practice on the Friday afternoon. It was particularly pleasing because Greig Laidlaw chose to move the ball away from the piles of bodies just short of the French line instead of having his forwards continuing to try to barge over.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t maintain the standard set in that second quarter. We still had our moments after the interval, and, with a kinder bounce of the ball, might have scored a couple of opportunist tries, but the fact is that the second half belonged to the French who came on in wave after wave of attacks, and so, as spectators, we were reduced to admiring the quality of the Scottish defence, notably brave, well-organised and committed. You have to go back to 1991 for the last time we didn’t concede a try in Paris; we lost that match 9-15, and 14 of the Scotland team that day had featured in the side that won the Grand Slam the previous season. So they were hardened warriors, and even the youngest of them, Craig Chalmers and Tony Stanger, were accustomed to success.

Someone remarked this weekend that, at last, this looks like a Scotland team people will actually enjoy watching. That’s true. The back division is more exciting than any we have fielded for years and, on Saturday, Stuart Hogg, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar and Finn Russell all played with no little skill and an exciting sense of adventure, looking for opportunities to run and aware of what was in front of them. I don’t want to dampen spirits but I’m old enough to remember that, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, we had equally exciting backs, among them Andy Irvine, Jim Renwick, David Johnston, Keith Robertson, Roger Baird and John Rutherford, and still lost many more matches than we won.

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Nine times out of ten you have to win the contest up front to win the match. On Saturday we did that for part of the game, for much of the first half indeed, but the French forwards were on top in the second half, which is why we lost. It is also why the penalty count went against us. The team under pressure is always the more likely to concede penalties and Nigel Owens is known to be a referee who – quite rightly, I should say – tends to favour the attacking side at the breakdown. Some thought him harsh in penalising Dougie Fife when he threw that ball into the crowd, because, they say, there was no possibility anyway of France taking a quick throw. That’s beside the point. Owens merely applied the law. It was a costly piece of daftness which Fife is unlikely to repeat.

Many of the forwards had fine games individually, notably Blair Cowan and Jonny Gray, but, as a unit, we were gradually overpowered, battered by the French driving mauls. This is the main reason for anxiety about the rest of the tournament. Can the pack provide enough good quality ball to give our dangerous young backs opportunities? Or will they be living on scraps? The statistics show that France had more possession and more territory. Perhaps, refreshing though it is to see handling attacks launched from deep in our own half, we should have kicked more in an attempt to redress the territorial balance. Still there are reasons to look on the bright side. In terms of overall quality this was the best match of the weekend , even if only one try was scored as against three in Cardiff and two in Rome. Stuart Hogg had his best match for Scotland and looked the most dangerous runner on the field. The midfield trio were all excellent – what a joy to see Russell, Dunbar and Bennett stopping Fofana and Bastareaud with classical low tackles. The terrific chase-back tackle with which Bennett got to Huget and forced him to knock-on saved what had looked like a certain try. Russell and Bennett are playing with the freedom and confidence of young men who haven’t heard that international rugby is supposed to be hard going. Long may this last.

Wales come north with their pride battered. Wounded dragons are dangerous. However, Vern Cotter’s first worry is likely to be the medical report. England may have been short of half-a-dozen of their first-choice team in Cardiff but they have strength in depth which we lack. In the centre we need two of Dunbar, Bennett and Matt Scott to be fit, on the wing two of Tommy Seymour, Tim Visser, Sean Maitland and Sean Lamont. And what do we do if anything happens to either Hogg or Russell?

Still let’s dwell, as they say, on the positives. This is a team capable of exciting and enthusing the public, and that is something to be thankful for. Wales will pose some of the same questions as France – very big hard-running men to be tackled low, but matters up front may be more equal than they were in Paris and, if we play next Sunday as we did in the second quarter there, who knows what might happen?

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