NOW into a fourth season with Andy Robinson at the helm and Scotland appear to be back at square one, ranked tenth in the world and looking forward to a second World Cup campaign in 2015 in which the national side is pitted against two higher-ranked countries.
But, rugby is never as black and white as that kind of sharp portrait. Among Scotland supporters leaving Murrayfield on Saturday night there was a mixture of disappointment and belief. More frustrating, ‘what-might-have-been’ reflections on clashes with the southern hemisphere sides to heap on to the mountain of misery against these nations but also a sense among many that Scotland are building a more competitive and threatening team.
Within the camp there were contrasting emotions after the 21-10 loss to the Springboks. Experienced campaigners like 31-year-old Sean Lamont insisting that he could not see much positivity after another ‘near-thing’ ruined by self-inflicted damage. At the other end of the spectrum, 20-year-old Stuart Hogg was bullish, believing that there was enough to grasp in the matches against New Zealand and South Africa to increase the belief among Scottish players that they can go into the RBS Six Nations Championship optimistic of turning over their fellow home nations and gaining revenge for this year’s defeat in Italy, if not France.
Lamont, one of the brighter Scotland players, on the occasion of his 70th cap, said: “I suppose as an old head I’ve been here many times. Yes, there have been more positive things but we’re not winning. It doesn’t matter what anybody says. If you don’t win, nothing matters.
“We were up against the world No 1 and No 2, but we could have been a damn sight closer in both of these games than we were, challenging New Zealand and beating South Africa
“When we beat South Africa two years ago I don’t think we missed any tackles. We got low, brought them to ground, and made it a s***-fight and, despite being told by the coaches before this game and again at half-time, to tackle low, to hit the breakdown harder, the fact that we didn’t do it is just so frustrating. The reason the coaches tell us to do things is to win the game, and they were spot-on with a game that could have, should have beaten the Springboks if we’d played.
“They’re not the most adventurous side and, when you bring them down quickly, they run out of ideas. Other than going through us a couple of times, they didn’t string any backs moves that got through, not like New Zealand.
“That is the big frustration. I know there are a few young boys still learning; Greig [Laidlaw] is older, but still learning stand-off, Hoggy has five caps now and is learning the game at 15 and Henry did well when he came on. I’m being critical because I’ve been here before and I can’t bear seeing the same things happening. At this stage in my career I want wins, and we are good enough to win these games. Our attack has got much better in recent years; we’re developing an edge, we’re sharper and there is a lot more confidence in our attack but, in the last two weeks, it has been individual things costing us.
“The systems are right, and we are in the right places but guys have been falling off tackles. And, for someone like me, who has been here a few times before, it’s a hell of a frustrating.”
Lamont’s emotion will be shared by many who have watched this before.
Weary cynics, aka long-suffering Scotland supporters, point to this being a results-based business and so extrapolate that Robinson’s firm has gone to the wall. But he will not be handed his P45 yet. He has at least until the end of the season and so the key, once again, is how quickly Robinson and his assistants can turn the lessons of 2012 into match-winning performances in 2013.
Just as at this time last year, when close games that ended in defeat to Argentina and England were bemoaned, the root cause is skills and decision-making failing to hold up under pressure. That remains the result of a development and pro system in Scotland less competitive than those in the rest of the home nations, France and the southern hemisphere. When the heavens open and skills are levelled a bit by the weather, Scotland’s chances of victory improve – as wins over Australia, South Africa and England in the past have shown – but, on dry days, the skills gap invariably becomes more visible.
These were not the strongest sides New Zealand or South Africa could field but such is their strength in depth that they could probably name three or four XVs to provide a stern test for our best XV. That is the reality of resources at this level.
So, the national coach cannot be wholly responsible for Scottish rugby’s failure but neither can Robinson be concerned with the wider game. He is paid, like every Test coach, to make the most of what he has at this point in time so, while the improving style of play points to progress, he has to find the wins that make it tangible and three Six Nations triumphs is probably the bare minimum this spring if he wishes to remain in charge for any longer.
But with one Test match to come in the EMC Autumn Test series, the learning can begin this week against the dangerous Tongans.
The Scots pack is developing well with Al Kellock due back this week but, while Scotland’s 9-10-12-13 selection has not brought much dispute, it is not convincing as a creative force.
It would be preferable to see Laidlaw returned to the scrum-half position and Stuart Hogg looked at as a future No 10 but that will take time so this week, after showing a fresh attacking spark, Henry Pyrgos could be given the No 9 jersey in Aberdeen. And, while Matt Scott and Nick De Luca have not been poor, by trying Hogg at 12 or 13 it could indicate whether he can make Scotland’s attack more potent closer to the action. What is there to lose?
Like Laidlaw, Hogg is a grounded Borderer and an astute rugby student and, despite the two defeats, he feels optimistic. “We’re not far away at all,” he said. “We’re obviously going in the right direction now, having come from a horrendous Six Nations to a good summer tour.
“I think our game play has improved and we’re in a better structure now – the coaches have us in the right shape. The boys are enjoying playing under them, although, obviously, we get frustrated at times and chase the game a little bit – our structure went completely at times against South Africa which is not good enough.
“We’re just as disappointed after the Springboks as we were after New Zealand. In the first half hour we let them get on top, then they shut up their defence and made us pay. I think it makes it more disappointing that we got on top in the second half because it shows that we could have and probably should have won the game.
“But everything is a work in process and, even after two defeats, the belief is coming day by day, game by game. We just need a good day and a good performance to really believe in ourselves and each other, and hopefully that will come this weekend against Tonga.”