Backs-to-the-wall defiance is the only way out of this mess, writes Allan Massie
Selecting a team to end a run of defeats is never easy. This should be acknowledged by any critics of the team picked by Scott Johnson for Rome, where – let us remember sadly – we have lost on our last three visits. This is why, coupled with respective performances in the first two rounds of the tournament, Italy will deservedly start favourites, even hot favourites, today.
Johnson has made only three changes from the side that lost so dismally to England. This shows restraint. Back in the darkest era of Scottish rugby, November 1951 to February 1955, when we lost 17 matches in a row, the selectors tended to be more cavalier. There was one season when they picked more than 30 players, this in the days when there were no substitutions permitted even for injured players.
Clearly changes had to be made for today’s match. You couldn’t say “same again” after the dismal Calcutta Cup performance. It is reasonable to leave the back division as it was. They saw so little of the ball and almost none of it good. Nevertheless the halves, in particular, will have to do better if they are to line up against France at Murrayfield in a fortnight.
Even so, granting the need for changes, there are puzzling illogicalities in the selection. Many of us thought it a mistake taking David Denton off early in the second half of the English game, and some of us said so. The coach’s response to this criticism is to relegate him to the bench. The decision is as puzzling as the earlier one to jettison Kelly Brown.
Consistency is, admittedly, difficult to achieve when you are losing, But some decisions are hard to fathom. Pat MacArthur was the replacement hooker against Ireland, came on in the second half, seemed to do well enough, and was then dropped from the squad and replaced by Scott Lawson.
It was difficult to see how in a week Lawson had suddenly become better than MacArthur. Now it seems he is also better than Ross Ford. Or take the Gray brothers. The younger, Jonny, having captained the Scotland A side against the England Saxons and played very well, was brought into the Calcutta Cup squad, played the last ten minutes of a match already hopelessly lost, and has now been dropped altogether. Meanwhile big brother Richie, having featured as a replacement in Dublin, was left out of the Calcutta Cup squad, but now returns to start in Rome. This is what is called “joined-up thinking”?
Jim Hamilton keeps his place, despite a couple of indifferent games and his regrettable propensity to give away silly penalties. I’ve always been one of his advocates, on the grounds that the set scrum has tended to go better when he is there. But apparently one reason for his retention is that he is the man who “calls” the line-outs – even though they have been a terrible mess.
It seems that “calling the line-out” has become a highly specialised skill, which will be news , and puzzling news at that, to players of an older generation. No doubt this is why the forwards of the team throwing in engage in a lengthy confabulation or briefing session before each line-out, an irritating time-wasting practice which referees should be instructed to cut short. It’s even more irritating of course if your team then mucks it up and loses what we now call their “own ball”.
Scotland, one supposes, will have to play a lot better than they have this season if they are to win today. Under their astute and experienced French coach, Jacques Brunel, Italy have looked good. Arguably only a couple of lapses of concentration in both matches denied them what would have been famous victories in Cardiff and Paris. Certainly the 10-30 scoreline against France was no fair reflection of a match in which Italy were on top for at least two-thirds of the game. Though two or three of their players, notably the great Castrogiovanni and Mauro Bergamasco, are in the veteran stage, Brunel’s team may well be the best Italy have had since they were admitted to the Six Nations, and, though our overall record since the Five became Six is poor, nobody surely would suggest that Scott Johnson’s team is anything like the best we have fielded in the last 15 years.
“Yet”, as Dr Johnson remarked, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
If they are not, happily, in the condemned cell, this Scotland team – and their coaches – undeniably have their backs to the wall. A sum total of two penalty goals from two matches is a truly miserable record. That we spent only three per cent of the Calcutta Cup game in the English 22 may well be an equally miserable record of a different kind. It’s time surely to turn the corner. As the proverb has it, “it’s a long road that has no turning”, and if we don’t turn a corner in Rome, the thought of France and Wales waiting further along the straight is not exactly encouraging.