SIFTING around in the wreckage of Scotland’s car crash performance in Dublin it is no easier to find any shards of positive news now than it was in the immediate aftermath of the event.
For all the effort put in, Scotland were hopelessly poor in so many basic aspects of the match, from set-piece play to simple things like passing the ball in front of the runner rather than making him pause to collect a ball that is fired two feet behind him. Three forward passes in the opening half alone point to a lack of accuracy as the Scots ran through the phases or, arguably, just a lack of concentration, although it’s difficult to know which is worse.
Greig Laidlaw still looks like a scrum-half playing at fly-half which is hardly surprising since that is exactly what he is. Several times, when the Scots were building a head of steam inside the Irish 22, he kicked the ball aimlessly away. It’s not his fault that Scotland have no one better to fill the role but Laidlaw remains a liability in defence, he is short of pace when caught in the wide open spaces and crucially he lacks a kicking game from hand of sufficient length for the international game.
Ireland scored that crucial try immediately before half-time because the Scots won the ball at a breakdown on the 22, the pass went back to Laidlaw standing near his own try line and the little man kicked the ball out on or around the Scotland 22 for a net gain of nil.
Test teams need someone who can comfortably hoof the ball half the length of the field and preferably a little longer than that, turning defence into attack with one swing of the leg. Being pinned down inside your own half for long stretches of a match not only invites mistakes and penalties but it is also utterly demoralising, which is why Dan Parks boasts 67 caps to his name.
With Chris Cusiter curiously out of sorts again in Dublin, Laidlaw may well be Scotland’s second choice scrum-half, but the experiment of playing him at ten has probably run its course and either Ruaridh Jackson or Duncan Weir should start in Rome.
Jackson stands flatter, attacks the line a bit better than Weir, and he is ahead of his rival in Andy Robinson’s pecking order, but the younger man kicks beautifully from hand and, if the Scottish forwards were given a vote, Weir might just get the shirt on that basis. The younger man also has the added benefit of kicking goals from anywhere in the opposition half and sometimes even his own end of the field, while Jackson remains hit and miss in front of the posts.
If Robinson were thinking outside the box, there is one other name to throw into the fly-half mix...Matt Scott. The poor man is still an apprentice at Edinburgh although not, you suspect, for very much longer. He has played all his rugby this season in the centre so it may be asking too much of him to slot into the play-maker role in Rome, but he grew up playing fly-half and he has many more hours in that position than any other.
His background in the No 10 shirt means that the former Currie player boasts all the skills of a Kiwi-style second five eighth, with excellent distribution and a kicking game to boot. In their final Heineken pool match against London Irish he latched on to a Roddy Grant break and threw a long looping inch-perfect pass off his weaker left hand to Tim Visser for a try only to be called back for a previous infringement.
Scott is pretty solid in defence and he is deceptively quick off the mark, as several defenders have discovered a little too late this season. He is exactly the sort of heads-up, intelligent rugby player that Scotland have been crying out for and, if Robinson does not see him as the answer at ten, having a natural second receiver on the field at inside centre is a boon for all the times the regular fly-half is caught out of position or just out of puff.
A midfield of Weir/Jackson, Scott and De Luca, if he has recovered from the tight hamstring that prevented him from taking the field in Dublin, with its mix of pace and power, would surely pose the Italian defence more problems than Ireland faced on Saturday in Dublin.
There was talk of Scott starting in Rome even before his brief cameo performance in Dublin, and Robinson must be tempted to throw him into the fray next Saturday. The coach is savvy enough to know that he will be forgiven for losing to Italy if there are signs of progress in this team – and many of their problems clearly still originate where they always did, in the midfield.