WELL, after the feast of tries in the first round of the tournament, there were only six this weekend, and Scotland scored two-thirds of them.
It’s not so long since that observation would have been greeted with incredulity. Of course conditions influence the way a game is played, and they were miserable in Dublin. Consequently Ireland made more handling errors than usual and England pretty well gave up any attempt to score tries after the first ten minutes apart from a delicate chip by Ben Youngs, which actually deserved to be rewarded with a try. Instead they relied on Owen Farrell’s goal-kicking, and because they played the conditions better than Ireland did, they deserved their victory.
Enough of that – and no need to speak about the dire game in Paris – back to Murrayfield. There were moments when Scotland played with an attacking flair seldom seen since 1999 when we had Gary Armstrong, Gregor Townsend, John Leslie and Alan Tait in midfield, with Glenn Metcalfe running lovely lines from full-back. Most attention has naturally been given to Stuart Hogg’s brilliant solo effort, while Sean Lamont fully deserved to end his long try drought with his alertly-taken one. Yet the first two tries were the most pleasing, because they were created by intelligent combined play. Ruaridh Jackson’s dummy and delayed one-handed off-load to put Tim Visser in space were exquisite, and though Visser still had a lot to do, one never doubted that he would reach the try-line. The second will have had the coaches purring, because it came from the set-piece and looked like a well rehearsed training-ground move. It was made by the speed of passing, Sean Maitland’s beautifully-timed incursion and pass, and the intelligent line run by Matt Scott who took the ball at full tilt. Perfect.
For what it’s worth – not a lot really – Maitland’s pass that put Scott over the line for a second time a bit later didn’t look forward to me, no matter how often I watched it.
So the cavalry did what the cavalry are expected to do, but the war was won, as wars usually are, by the poor bloody infantry. The front five were very good indeed, and the back three more than very good. Richie Gray has been in danger of playing himself out of the Lions squad; he played himself right in again on Saturday, while Jim Hamilton was a tower of strength in the close-quarter engagements, just what you need against Italy. Johnnie Beattie put in a storming performance without ever drifting out of the game as he has always tended to do, while Kelly Brown was so good Warren Gatland should have his name down for the Lions – conceivably as captain if he and Scotland can build on this.
As for Rob Harley, there are few pleasures greater than being able to say, “I told you so”. A few weeks ago I wrote here that I would like to see him picked because there is fire to his play and he makes a bloody nuisance of himself as John Jeffrey and Finlay Calder used to. Well, he did just that, tirelessly and very effectively. Getting the quick clean ball they were denied at Twickenham, Greig Laidlaw and Jackson looked a genuine international pair. Laidlaw controlled the game astutely; Jackson ran dangerously. He still has work to do on his kicking, but the pair deserve a good run together. Indeed it’s nice to think that Scott Johnson would have to make no changes at all if the Ireland match wasn’t on a Sunday.
If there was any disappointment for Scottish supporters so long starved of success, it was that we allowed Italy to dominate possession and territory for most of the last quarter of the match. Perhaps we were taking the opportunity to fine-tune our defensive structure? No matter: the game showed again how misleading statistics can be. Last year there were matches in which we had more possession and made more passes, even more line-breaks, than our opponents, but still lost. The fact is of course that a team which has a lot of possession may well be a team that is going nowhere, fruitlessly recycling the ball time and again, and being chopped down time and again. That said, we are likely to be in difficulties if any of our remaining opponents retain the ball for long periods as Italy did in the second half on Saturday, because all three have more strike-power behind the scrum than the Italians. On Saturday we won the collisions throughout the first half, but far less regularly in the second. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and it’s too soon to say that this Scotland side has turned the corner, but at least we can see round the corner now. If the forwards continue to play with the fierce commitment and control they displayed on Saturday, then we will go into the next three matches with at least a 50-50 chance of winning.
Good performances by the pack have too often in recent years enabled us at best to grind out victories, thanks also to astute kicking from hand by Dan Parks and the excellence of Chris Paterson’s goal-kicking. Now we have pace and power in the back division, and no little skill too. No tinkering is needed. They just need to continue to do what they did well on Saturday, preferably doing it even better of course. Hallelujah! There may be good times ahead...