IF EVER a story was told by the expressions in a face it was after Scotland’s humbling defeat by Tonga on Saturday when head coach Andy Robinson emerged to answer the media.
• Recent poor results had piled pressure on former England coach
• SRU said recent form was ‘disappointing’
• Search begins for Robinson’s replacement
It was probably there for all to see through the match when the BBC cameras panned to the coach in the stand, his face contorting into a variety of shapes that all amounted to the one thing: interminable, all-consuming frustration. When he eventually left the confines of the home dressing-room, having run out of ways to cajole his side, and lambasted them instead as being “a disgrace” to the nation – as Greig Laidlaw revealed – he was probably already aware that it would be his last post-match address.
While the players showered, dressed and headed for the team bus, eyes on the floor, silent and at a loss to understand their abject performance, Robinson was fielding questions about who was to blame for this latest shambles, to book-end a year begun with a whitewashed RBS Six Nations Championship. The expression was the same one we saw at the end of last year’s Rugby World Cup, and again in Rome after this year’s RBS Six Nations wooden spoon. He said that he would not spare himself from a searching examination in the coming days – it turned out to be hours – and that there had to be consequences for finishing an autumn Test series with defeat by the 12th-ranked nation in world rugby – a loss which pushes Scotland to a record low of 12th.
Ashen-faced, he said: “That was a totally unacceptable performance that you have witnessed today, and I am very angry about what I’ve seen and would like to apologise to the supporters who have come and seen that today. There will be consequences because of this performance. I won’t go through what those will be yet, but that from my side was just totally unacceptable. I will look at everything. It reflects on me, yes. From the performance that we’ve seen today there needs to be consequences and I [my future] will be at the forefront of those discussions.”
It was not the fact that Scotland lost to an improving Tonga team, one that defeated France in last season’s World Cup and were denied victory in Italy only by poor refereeing, but the manner in which his side failed to threaten the Tongans, struggling to attack with any precision and virtually opening the door to an opposition revival – as they did against Argentina and England in New Zealand, and Italy in Rome – that left him wondering what more he could do. Having asked himself that question several times since taking over in May, 2009, he could no longer find the enthusiasm and belief to answer it positively.
But how much of this latest rollercoaster ride in Scottish rugby was down to him? Robinson is widely believed to be the most experienced and most technically astute coach Scotland have had since Ian McGeechan, but the job of a Test coach is like any other, one of extracting the most from whatever resource you have, and unlike any other in that you have to do so in the space of days and weeks, rather than seasons.
Ultimately, players have again let down their coach with sub-standard individual performances that led to an underwhelming whole, and Alastair Kellock and Laidlaw were two who spoke to the media after Saturday’s defeat to state that they hoped Robinson would stay, and that they, and their team-mates, accepted full responsibility for what they said was a woeful display.
The team deserves weighty criticism, but when one analyses repeated mistakes made by individuals in the past three weeks, players taking contact when great work by team-mates had created an overlap, passes behind team-mates, poor tackles, kicks to well-covered areas and a failure to properly exploit space, hesitate a little from hammering the players. They are the product of our Scottish rugby system. Readers of these columns will be well aware of my feelings on the real problem in Scottish rugby: the lack of a competitive structure that rigorously develops players through the key 15-20 years. That is what we are seeing now in Test rugby. While the top eight nations and more – Italy and Argentina are now investing in academies – are working harder to create a step-up each year for their players, exposing them to tougher regular matches of greater intensity each season, young, just as talented Scots are still sucked into a vacuum where they are trained and coached as well as most, but do not come under anything like the pressure in match situations of peers around the world.
Two Edinburgh independent schools will contest a Scottish Schools Cup this week at Murrayfield that very few schools entered because of the great disparity in quality. They possess real talents, great youngsters with drive and energy, but how many will be signed up next summer without searching, regular examination of their rugby skills?
Big, strong players in Scotland are still winning professional contracts and caps without being able to pass, tackle or kick consistently well under pressure. Supporters of Edinburgh and Glasgow will tell you who they are. And, worryingly, the gulf is widening. Scottish players work as hard as any to improve but the rate of improvement in every country, in every sport, only partly comes from within; the real improvement comes from deeper, in emotional responses to the pressure of competition.
David Denton spoke to me recently about how all South African teenagers developing in the game at leading rugby schools are taught the various skills needed at the ‘breakdown’, to get in over ball, stay on feet and win ball back after a tackle. All players, not just back rows. Those who do not display seriously good skills in this area, as well as passing and tackling, by the age of 17/18 can forget about a career in the game.
Former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith told The Scotsman recently that it was plain to see why New Zealanders were moving further ahead of Scottish players. One reason was the fact that the entire New Zealand under-20s squad progress into one of 14 ITM Cup and/or five Super Rugby squads and take their learning into a faster, harder, higher-intensity arena, fighting hard to earn that chance against thousands of other wannabes and to keep it, while only a handful of Scottish under-20 caps land contracts because we have only two pro teams – and even they often have to wait a couple of years before seeing any kind of strenuous rugby game-time. And we wonder why Ruaridh Jackson is still learning the game at 24, and why Robinson has felt the need to play a scrum-half with a great rugby brain at 10, in succession to Dan Parks?
Robinson’s selection skills have been tested, and when one recalls the form of the ‘Killer Bs’, Kelly Brown, John Barclay and Johnnie Beattie, one wonders what he was hoping for with three forwards whose skills are more suited to the blindside area, essentially big, hard-running players, who lack the creativity of their rivals. That might seem unfair, but it is one example of where we fall down compared to other top ten nations.
In discussion in Aberdeen last week, the Tongan coaches told me they had only 100,000 people and so were far smaller than Scotland. But, more pertinently, I said, their belief that they have close to 10,000 rugby players, with over 1,000 spread around the world, put them level with Scotland’s resources. Their male population still grows up playing with a rugby ball, in the way that youngsters in the Borders used to and only some still do. So they develop a level of skills and understanding of passing, kicking and exploiting space that some players wearing Scotland jerseys this year are only now comprehending. It has become too frustrating for Robinson, as he watches game after game where his plan, worked out from countless hours of research on the opposition and consideration of his players’ strengths, goes awry on the rock of Test arena pressure.
And yet maybe he realised he was falling into bad habits under pressure too. He had injuries depriving him of some choices, but by selecting big second rows Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton together with a big back row of Alasdair Strokosch, Kelly Brown and David Denton he sent out an English-style of pack, and duly deployed an English-style of forward assault on opposition in the past few weeks; pick-and-gos, few off-loads, mauls; physical but blunt.
Had his team edged a one-point win against Tonga he would probably have been given at least until the end of the 2013 RBS Six Nations Championship to effect improvement, but in defeat one sensed that the prospect of facing England in the opener at Twickenham in nine weeks with a team losing direction made his mind up. When it came to his own self-analysis, Robinson knew that he had changed the coaching team, he had changed tactics and style and still it was a case of one step forward and two back.
So, where do Scottish rugby look now for inspiration? There is speculation that Scott Johnson, the Australian brought in by Robinson to shake up the attack, might be handed the reins. He is on a highly-paid contract and Robinson persuaded SRU CEO Mark Dodson that he was a top-notch coach.The jury is out on that. This squad need a new voice, and one they can instantly believe in, so the obvious answer for Dodson is to install Sean Lineen in the head coach role, at least on a caretaker basis. Like the RFU did with Stuart Lancaster last year, the SRU could hand Lineen the reins for the 2013 RBS Six Nations Championship and ask him to instil a new belief and upturn in performance while they consider their options.
The hard-talking ex-Scotland centre and former Auckland policeman has confidence, belief, experience, knowledge of the players, is a good skills coach and, crucially, has excellent relations with Glasgow and Edinburgh coaches, where the real skills improvement needs to happen. Matt Taylor is highly-rated and has form with Queensland Reds and if Lineen takes on the backs from Johnson, the forwards role may be ideal for an up-and-coming home-bred coach.
Scottish rugby has issues of resources, and has hit a new low in the Test arena, but this Scotland squad does have quality. It has also shown enough in 2012 for us to know that Scotland can compete with the best in the world.
The key difference is that other nations are not standing still, but driving on their development of players from 12 years old upwards. How the SRU seriously improve the development of Scottish rugby talent is a more difficult challenge, but that is the real cause of pain and frustration for recent Scotland coaches, and is what Dodson has to bring together the best rugby brains in the country – and perhaps some from outside – to tackle if he genuinely wishes to effect a change in Scottish rugby fortunes.
Provisional rankings (official IRB world rankings released today)
1. New Zealand 92.91
2. South Africa 86.94
3. Australia 86.31
4. France -85.07
5. England 81.07
6. Ireland 80.22
7. Wales 78.95
8. Samoa -78.709
9. Argentina -78.708
10. Italy 76.24
11. Tonga 76.10
12. Scotland 75.83