THE tour from hell; or a decent start to Vern Cotter’s reign as head coach? Either or both depending on where you choose to concentrate your attention.
Cotter himself sees it as a useful exercise, though more for showing him the areas where most work needs to be done rather than any particular demonstration of where Scotland stands in world rugby.
Since he never got to pick the best team he could have and knows there were also a shedload of injured players back in Scotland hoping to get their chance in November, he admits he is still not clear in his own mind what is his best XV and probably will not be able to nail that down until the end of the year.
First, however, the raw figures. Overall they played four matches winning three but being hammered in the final one. They scored 70 points, including six tries, but conceded 97 including 11 tries, though the deficit column is heavily skewed by the 55 points and eight tries South Africa notched up.
Stuart Hogg was top try scorer with two, coming against the USA and Argentina.
Over the course of four games, Cotter used 42 players, eight of them winning their first caps on tour, bringing the total number of new caps since the start of last summer’s tour to 22. There were also another three players who joined the tour at some stage but did get onto the field. Only two players, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland, started every game, and neither of them made it to the end of the final match. Another three, Grant Gilchrist, Geoff Cross and Moray Low, played some part in every match.
However an illustration of how the tour party weakened as the games got tougher is that while Cotter was able to field three uncapped players in the first game against the side ranked 18th in the world — Finn Russell, Gordon Reid and Blair Cowan — he could still put 397 caps on to the field.
By the time he got to the last game against the side ranked second, the total had dropped to 275 even though there was only one new cap in the starting XV. Worse still, 142 of those caps were in the front row alone, leaving just 133 to go round the rest of the side.
So perhaps Cotter is right to write the final game off as an aberration and concentrate instead on the three wins that came first. “I still don’t like losing but I was encouraged by the spirit and determination of the players to keep developing, to keep trying to put things in place and construct things. We will go forward with a plan to improve physically, improve technically and to apply tactics that suit us and the profile of the team. I go away with plenty of things to think about, which is good,” he said.
“All northern hemisphere teams have had trouble adapting to the first game. Wales did in South Africa, France did in Australia – the Southern Hemisphere teams are in the middle of Super Rugby and are up to pace. We had trouble adapting to that change up in pace but that for me is a good marker, we need to play up-tempo rugby, we need to develop that. At times we did it and when we did we had them under pressure and they gave away penalties.
“Those are the positive things I take away. I take away the scrum, which has been good all tour, our line which has functioned. We are looking to improve all areas of the game but we have some solid bases. We need to improve globally our shape on attack, our discipline and our shape on defence. Those are all things we can look at. That is in all objectivity to try to move our level forward.
“The players will get good feedback from this tour, individual performances and how we performed as a team. I got what I wanted — though I would have liked a less hard kick in the butt from the final game.” It is, however, possible to be too positive. The USA and Canada were both ranked eight places behind Scotland at the time of the matches – a bigger gulf than between South Africa and Scotland who were only six places different — and Argentina put out what was in effect their A team.
Yes, Scotland did win, but they didn’t dominate. They got lucky against Canada when the penalty to win it for the home side was reversed and they had to come from behind in the final ten minutes to beat Argentina.
In terms of individuals, he has clearly been impressed by Grant Gilchrist both as a captain and a player and clearly he is a candidate to lead the side on a full-time basis with Greig Laidlaw, who led in the first two Tests, the other leading contender. Tommy Seymour emerged as the leading attacking threat and Stuart Hogg seems to have rediscovered some of his swagger after a troubled season.
The set piece was good, both scrum and line out, the only time the opposition got a rolling maul going was against South Africa when the Scots were a man down, but the breakdown is an issue, the penalty count in particular — that is what handed South Africa their sprint start.
“The objective is to play up-tempo rugby and to start developing speed in our game all over the park,” Cotter added. “You look for athletic, strong players. Yes there are things I am happy about. It is good to be able to talk to players as well and to get them shifting forwards and looking at their rugby.
“The challenge now is to constantly follow these players and give them feedback for the next time we come together to give them an opportunity to get back into the team. It is encouraging, we will work as a coaching staff to develop everyone who could be selected.
“I am really happy with the attitude and the work ethic the players have and they are good people, essentially, and that is what makes a good team. That is why I am positive and was positive after the game. There is scope to shift them and a real desire to perform better as a team.Those are positive things we see as coaching staff.”