Cautious optimism tempered before Rugby World Cup

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DISAPPOINTMENT? Yes, of course. A tournament which began promisingly has ended in all too familiar disappointment. We were thoroughly outplayed by Ireland. They dominated the breakdown, handled much better, and reduced us to living off scraps. So Vern Cotter has six months in which to prepare for a World Cup that his squad is at least two years short of being ready for. That’s the harsh truth and, even if injured players whom we have badly missed – Richie Gray, Alex Dunbar and Sean Maitland – all report fit, it will be uphill work.

It’s not a question of coaching. We have had some good coaches since Jim Telfer and John Rutherford were in charge of the last successful Scotland team in 1999, but Ian McGeechan. Frank Hadden and Andy Robinson all failed to produce a team capable of winning consistently. Sometimes we have felt, as we felt a couple of months ago, that we weren’t far short of achieving that… only for hopes to wither as reality set in. Coaches, we should remember, don’t miss tackles, knock the ball on or send a pass into thin air. Nevertheless, this column, being incurably optimistic, must look for the green shoots of recovery. Cotter’s team has played some good rugby: against France in Paris, Wales at Murrayfield, and England at Twickenham. Good young players have been introduced to international rugby: Mark Bennett, Finn Russell. Jonny Gray, Adam Ashe, and in brief appearances, Fraser Brown and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. None has seemed, except occasionally, out of place. Yet dwelling on a couple of them serves to show why we are where we are.

Jonny Gray, centre, has been a bright spark in Scotland's Six Nations. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Jonny Gray, centre, has been a bright spark in Scotland's Six Nations. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Finn Russell looks like being our best fly-half since Gregor Townsend. There’s general agreement about that, and he had a pretty good game against Ireland. But he has had scarcely more than a year of professional rugby. So he has been thrown into the deep end and told to swim. When Jonny Sexton came into the Ireland team, he shared the fly-half duties with the vastly experienced Ronan O’Gara. Dan Biggar has been outstanding for Wales this year, but he had several seasons learning his trade with the Ospreys before Warren Gatland turned to him. England’s George Ford is the same age as Russell, but, in terms of his ability to manage a game, perhaps two years ahead of him. Being schooled in the Leicester Academy before moving to Bath 18 months ago offers a more through preparation for international rugby than playing in the (amateur) Scottish Premiership as Russell was doing until midway through last season.

Jonny Gray has had a tremendous season, playing almost every minute of every match, excelling in the lineout, making a huge number of tackles and carrying well (except for one knock-on against Ireland). But he is still only 21. On Saturday he was up against Paul O’Connell, Ireland’s greatest lock since Willie-John McBride. O’Connell, Lions captain in South Africa, Heineken Cup winner with Munster, is accustomed to success. If it was a case of man against boy, the man not surprisingly came out on top. Jonny Gray is already a terrific player, but just as Finn Russell is a couple of years behind George Ford, so Gray is at least a couple behind England’s Courtney Lawes.

In one important respect, young players like Russell, Gray, Bennett and Ashe are in a better position than young Scots of comparable promise were a few years ago. They have the experience of winning regularly at club level. Glasgow are top of the Guinness Pro12 and, though they narrowly failed to qualify for the quarter-final of the European Champions Cup, they thumped Bath at Scotstoun and were unlucky to lose the return game away from home. We have to be patient with them.

Patience pays. Stuart Hogg made a brilliant start to his international career and toured with the Lions. He fell away somewhat last season and seemed unsettled, at odds with his game. He was even left out of the Glasgow side in the Pro12 semi-final and final. He has bounced back this year and been as good as any full-back in the Six Nations, yet is still capable of further improvement as he matures.

I’ve remarked before that we have to run very hard to hold our present position in the world game and to avoid falling further behind. The last extraordinary Saturday of the Six Nations demonstrated just how difficult a challenge we face. Ireland and Wales remain some way ahead of us, but it’s worth noting that the outstanding Welsh back row of Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate have been together for more than four years now. Wales provided the bulk of the last Lions team and most of them are still playing. Ireland have won the last two Six Nations. Meanwhile, Stuart Lancaster has put together an England XV capable of playing what that great teacher and theorist of the game, Jim Greenwood, called Total Rugby. It will be no great surprise if, with the advantage of playing at Twickenham, they win the World Cup this autumn. That’s what we are up against – even without any mention of the Southern Hemisphere. Cotter’s young team have lost matches, but, with the exception of Italy, the teams that have beaten them have been decidedly good. Even France at last showed what they are capable of on Saturday, and scored five tries – despite which they lost by 20 points. Moreover in every match, there have been moments when it seemed we might win – even on Saturday when, after a poor start, we got back to being only 10-17 down. But we have almost always fallen away in the second half.

To end on a brighter note, Sean Lineen’s under-20 side have won three of their five matches, beating Wales, Italy and Ireland, and running England quite close. There is more good stuff coming through.

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