SCOTLAND captain Greig Laidlaw emerged from a day he hoped would be the best in his rugby career feeling like it may have been his worst, but he still leapt to the defence of his coaches.
Scott Johnson’s ability to improve the Scotland national side remains in question after a run of eight losses in the last ten Test matches and a host of surprising selection moves. Johnson took over the reins after Andy Robinson quit in November 2012, and lifted optimism with wins over Italy and Ireland in his first three games of last season’s RBS Six Nations Championship, but his teams have beaten only Italy and Japan in the ten Test matches since.
But Laidlaw, who took over the captaincy from a dropped Kelly Brown for Saturday’s Calcutta Cup, insisted that the players retain belief in the coaching staff.
“The coaches have 100 per cent backing of the players, no doubt,” said the straight-talking scrum-half. “They are good coaches. The faults in these two games have not come from the coaches, but from the players. Once you cross the white line onto the field, it’s up to the players to deliver the plan the coaches have put in place, and there’s no reason why we can’t because we understand it and it’s pretty simple.
“We did it for maybe 35 minutes against Ireland but haven’t been able to deliver it since, and that’s down to players on the pitch not performing the way they can.”
Johnson, not a man naturally given to be head honcho, always maintained that he had taken on the role temporarily on the understanding that the SRU would appoint a new head coach within six months. They did, agreeing a contract with Vern Cotter, but then hit rocks when Clermont Auvergne turned down Cotter’s request to leave France last summer and insisted that he see out the last year of his contract in France.
By then the SRU had named Johnson as their new ‘Director of Rugby’, an overseeing position desperately required as schools, youth, club and pro rugby battle to find a fruitful way forward.
Johnson is determined to formulate a new system of youth and academy development in Scottish rugby, drawing on his experience of Australian sport and how the Welsh transformed their schools/youth/academy set-up to bring through a new generation of young talent over the past decade.
But, that is for later. His immediate focus is on how to avoid emulating the last Six Nations whitewash of Robinson’s reign, just two years ago. Two defeats in two games, a paltry six points, a captain dropped after one game and a team that appears less capable and confident than was the case a year ago is the kind of start that brings pressure on and questions of the Scotland camp.
Scotland have never been able to deliver success with any consistency in the professional era. Having struck a 53 percent success rate in the championship from the Grand Slam of 1984 to its 1999 last Five Nations triumph, they have won just 20 games in 72 in the Six Nations, and just 12 against the old five nations.
One experienced English writer has even called for the Six Nations to issue Scotland with a notice of expulsion if they do not improve. That is typical English farce, but it heightens the pressure on the team to reverse the slide in Rome. The Italians have won six and Scotland eight of their Six Nations encounters and Italy have been far more enterprising in this tournament to date.
Laidlaw – and Brown for that matter, who one feels the squad are better with than without – is not one to shun the challenge. “It is hard to explain what went wrong against England,” Laidlaw said. “It is really tough to take. We set out with the best of intentions and then … I don’t want to keep bringing it up, but it was there for everyone to see: the set-piece was crucial again.
“We just couldn’t get any ball to really get going and it just felt like we were defending the whole game. It was Chris Fusaro’s first cap and, as experienced players, you feel you’ve let him down. And we let down a full house at Murrayfield and all the rest of the supporters across Scotland and around the world. They were badly let down by that performance. You can’t hide from that.
“As captain, I tried to keep hammering home to the players that it’s important that they keep doing their job, that it will come if they stay focused, but we were on the back foot the whole day. I’m still shell-shocked to say the least.
“But what is important, looking forward, is that we all stick together and we work hard as a squad to get ourselves back on the horse, regardless of whether we were playing next week or not.”
Laidlaw is a good character to have at a time like this, a player who understands the game, but selection is never easy here. Robinson, Frank Hadden, Matt Williams and Ian McGeechan have all failed at times with the challenge of trying to pick the right blend for Six Nations campaigns of skills, mental strength and simple rugby understanding, which is not a given in a country with Scotland’s lack of numbers and competition.
Some have criticised Johnson since he first pitched up, due to his past profile, a penchant for pithy lines and the fact that he is Australian. But his nationality is irrelevant. Getting the right blend of outsider influence, bringing to Scotland lessons from more successful nations, and unique Scottish knowledge and skills, is proving as difficult for the SRU’s leadership as selecting the right blends on the pitch.
Still, this is Johnson’s time. He has a chequered past and may not have wished for the Scotland head coach job but, from the moment he took it, he accepted a responsibility to improve the national team.
His approach has been to use 2013-14 to move out players he and his assistants do not rate highly, and blood those they feel could spark a brighter future, players such as Sean Maitland, Grant Gilchrist, Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour, Tim Swinson and Jonny Gray. Blooding players and keeping expectations low is not the most difficult test, however, and can be viewed as a ‘get-out’ for under-performing coaches.
Johnson is a proud man who believes in what he is doing, but Scotland need a head coach with the ability to inspire, provide an effective game-plan and shape the team to maximise its strengths and exploit opposition weakness, now. It may seem a thankless task, and those of us who have watched the struggle to cope with professionalism acknowledge it as an exercise in papering over the cracks of a rugby ‘structure’ falling further behind other nations, but the players and supporters spending hundreds or thousands of pounds to follow the team, deserve better.
Laidlaw, shattered by the manner of Scotland’s Calcutta Cup defeat, is determined to do what he can to ensure the form lifts quickly.
“We have the best players in the country here, so there’s nowhere else to look,” he said. “We just need to get our act together a bit better and go from there.
“We have three tough games left, but three games I want to be part of and want to play a part in helping Scotland to win.”