VERN COTTER must opt for big hitters – and get them to keep on hitting – to have any hope at Twickenham.
The broken glass door of the coaching box at the end of the Italy game was a sorry metaphor for the performance on the pitch. Scotland too were beaten and broken, the cracks in the squad just as obvious as those in the door.
We have been here before and more often than anyone cares to remember. If it was a forgettable afternoon for Scotland’s new coach Vern Cotter, the rest of us are becoming strangely inured to these disappointments. Well, some of us. I spoke to one former international player who was thoroughly entertained by that frenetic finale. At least it was better than last year’s Calcutta Cup when the Scots not only failed to land a single blow on England, they didn’t even throw one.
That humiliation took place on Scott Johnson’s watch and the recruitment of the current Kiwi coach was supposed to signal a new dawn. The initial signs were positive; the five tries against Argentina and a proper Test match against New Zealand followed by those close shaves against France and Wales.
A chunk of the goodwill Cotter had banked evaporated last Saturday and the juxtaposition of his former Clermont colleague Joe Schmidt out-foxing England every which way in Dublin just one day after Scotland’s meltdown at Murrayfield cannot have helped Cotter’s anger management programme.
Schmidt’s Dublin home was burgled the day after that win – perhaps the Garda should be looking for a burly New Zealander with a frown on his face, frantically searching for clues on how to beat England?
Sure enough, Ireland are in a different stage of the cycle than Scotland but there is no point complaining about the lack of experience in Scotland’s match-day squad when the selectors ignored 107 caps worth of the stuff (Kelly Brown and John Barclay) in favour of the newbie Hamish Watson. Only if Watson is earmarked for a vital role in the World Cup could that decision be justified.
The two veteran flankers would have helped with the chronic lack of leadership but neither man would have solved Scotland’s main problem up front, which was a shortage of power.
“Ballroom dancing is a contact sport,” Vince Lombardi once said, “football is a hitting sport.” The great man’s quote is as relevant to rugby as it is to American football and Scotland did not field enough big hitters, either with or without the ball, at any time.
There are a few easy wins for Cotter so he should take them. The return of Jim Hamilton, starting this afternoon for Saracens, will bring some much-needed bulk and belligerence to the Scottish pack. Adam Ashe’s neck injury flared up again after the Munster game so he is unlikely to feature but David Denton should be drafted into the squad, possibly even the starting XV, presuming he survived yesterday’s match unscathed.
Elsewhere, there are question marks over the wings and the halfbacks. Sean Lamont’s release back to Glasgow on Friday night hinted that his place was under threat already even before an ugly knee injury late on Friday evening rendered the point moot. Dougie Fife or Tim Visser offer two alternatives, although neither has made a watertight case for inclusion.
Finn Russell will return to the ten shirt, that much is a gimmie, although who backs him up on the bench is a live one. Peter Horne is an option, if only on the basis that he’s got to get back on the horse. Greig Tonks, the alternative, covers 15 as well as ten.
One report last week had Greig Laidlaw dropped as captain in favour of Jonny Gray but that seems unlikely. At the age of 20, Gray is best left to concentrate on his own performance. Laidlaw hasn’t been at his best, either kicking from hand or in broken play but, in a team that is already short of smarts, dropping one of the most intelligent players and handing the reins to Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, whose international experience is measured in minutes, is an obvious risk at a ground where Scotland don’t need to go looking for trouble.
Hidalgo-Clyne and Chris Cusiter are exciting players and valid options at nine, but Russell’s first instinct is to run, so picking a running nine inside him is like doubling up on the bet. Scotland need Laidlaw’s game management to play in the right areas of the field because they will not beat England if they are stuck inside their own half for 80 minutes tackling wave after wave of white jerseys.
England employ the same rush tactics in defence that the Scots handled pretty well against France and Wales. When they catch the man and ball ten yards behind the gain line the tactic can be brutally effective but the on-rushing defenders do leave gaps and soft shoulders for the Scottish midfielders, if they have the vision to spot and the courage to exploit them.
Scotland’s defence was solid in the opening two matches and they will back themselves to keep a lid on England’s exciting young back line if the forwards can match the home eight in the arm wrestle for possession and territory but that is a big ask.
England will be practising their driving maul all next week, Scotland will be practising stopping it. The visitors have zero chance of getting a result if they can’t stop the bullies from bullying. If that contest finishes a no-score draw, the French referee Romain Poite is quicker on the whistle come scrum time than anyone else in the business and he nearly always favours the dominant team. If England get the squeeze on the Scots early on, they won’t tire of the tactic.
There are numerous ways England could win this one, although, if they choose fast and loose, they will at least give Scotland the chance to counter punch. In any honest appraisal of the likely outcomes, there are several scenarios in which the scoreboard could run away from the visiting team altogether unless they bring their best. It is difficult to see where the Scots enjoy a distinct advantage over the auld enemy unless wish fulfilment counts.
He won’t admit as much out loud but Cotter may view this game as something of a holding operation. Scotland last triumphed in London in 1983 and this group of players looks ill-equipped to end that miserable run. There are too many cracks in the Scotland squad, too little experience, too few players able to grab a game (or the opposition) by the throat and wrestle it into submission.
Instead of the result, tartan-clad fans should focus on the performance and, especially, the attitude of the men in blue. Scotland must show spirit, enterprise and the rugby intelligence that was so painfully absent last time out. They have to land a few blows.
The Kiwi coach knows that, provided his side gives a good account of themselves on Saturday coming, he can regroup, retrench and hope to return to the same ground for a World Cup quarter-final with an improved squad bolstered by several big beasts. Only then will Cotter fancy his team can end their long winless run in west London.
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