A miserable autumn disguises the young talent at Scotland’s disposal but can coach bring out their best?
ANOTHER autumn turns to winter and the Scots, with three loses and dropping out the top ten of the IRB’s food chain, may just be feeling the chill wind blowing. The team has now won three and lost eight Tests in this calendar year. With the draw for the 2015 Rugby World Cup due to take place in London a week tomorrow, Scottish fans can expect another tough group.
Scotland failed to qualify for the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in history last year despite the gods smiling on them by plucking from the hat the weakest of the top-seeded teams (Argentina) and arguably the weakest of the second group of countries too (England). Scotland will be lucky to be so lucky again. There is another round of autumn internationals still to take place next weekend but the likelihood is that Andy Robinson’s men will have to defeat England, Argentina, Ireland or Wales/Samoa if they want to experience knockout rugby come 2015.
They are better positioned than many imagine despite what happened at Pittodrie yesterday afternoon.
Ignore his miserable debut, Scotland have found a stand-off of true Test potential in Bath’s 20-year-old Tom Heathcote. Robinson has been stalking Heathcote ever since the stand-off played alongside his son for England’s age grade teams and he has finally snared his quarry. We didn’t see enough of the Bath man against Tonga to jump to too many conclusions but, given a little time, Heathcote boasts the class to silence Scotland’s stand-off debate that has been raging for over a decade and, for that alone, he deserves our gratitude.
In the backline, Robinson seems to have taken a leaf out of the All Black book by capping young players early in the World Cup cycle so, when the big one comes along in 2015, the likes of Heathcote, Henry Pyrgos, Stuart Hogg, Tim Visser and Matt Scott will all boast around 25-35 caps worth of international experience. Plenty enough to launch a World Cup campaign.
When you add into the mix the Scottish-qualified Kiwi flyer Sean Maitland – he has just joined Glasgow Warriors – and Clermont’s Mark Bennett, who has followed him west on a temporary basis, the future for Scottish back play looks a lot brighter than it did a year or so ago.
Yesterday’s starting backs boasted an average age of just 25 with Sean Lamont the only one of them on the wrong side of 30. They will all be wiser, stronger and significantly better players in three years time. The problem is that young players make mistakes while they learn the ropes “on the job”, as Scotland’s youngsters must do. We saw that yesterday and the fans may need to be patient while a brand new blend beds in.
The forwards are mixed. They are big and muscular and bossed proceedings against both New Zealand and South Africa. If David Denton would benefit from a little more awareness, his leaving Richie McCaw for road kill is not something many can claim. The set scrum is a potent attacking weapon and the lineout woes are fixable. The problem at the breakdown is less susceptible to tinkering because the Scots have pretty much given up challenging for the opposition ball. We need a big, muscular breakaway in the mould of Ireland’s Sean O’Brien to compete where the tin helmets are required.
Part of the problem lies with the Scottish backs, who are slight. The best back for disrupting opposition ball in recent years has been Graeme Morrison, who is injured and out of favour, while some of the current crop might as well not bother competing for all the impression they make at the breakdown. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed ahead of the Six Nations.
At least Richie Gray and Ryan Grant have emerged from the autumn with their reputations enhanced, even if Ross Ford is feeling a little less cheery. If the Kelso man makes the Lions squad next year, and goodness knows he has the ability, the hooker will probably look back on this week as a turning point. He has fallen a long way, from victorious skipper of the triumphant summer tour, to being unwanted on the Aberdeen bench. If yesterday proved anything, it was that Scotland need Ford back to his best.
There are others who will put their hand up between now and the World Cup. The South African pair of Josh Strauss and WP Nel both conveniently qualify for Scotland just under the wire and both men will add to the competition in the first and third rows of the scrum. As will Rob Harley and Ryan Wilson who have been injured and overlooked respectively in recent weeks. Grant Gilchrist adds to the riches in the second row while hooker Pat MacArthur will surely muscle his way into the squad in time for the Six Nations. There are bump and grind aficionados licking their lips at the potential of Jon Welsh once the Glasgow man is fit again.
Scotland are down with the smaller fish in the Test pool but Robinson is working towards a long-term goal of RWC 2015 and the little Englishman will just have to hope SRU chief Mark Dodson and the fans have the patience to see his project to completion.