I ALWAYS go for the second cheapest wine in any restaurant on the basis that I don’t want to look mean… even if I am. At least I have an excuse, but what theory could possibly explain Scotland’s perennial second from bottom standing in the Six Nations?
The team finished this campaign there once again, the sixth time in the last eight years. Fifth place, one off the foot of the ladder, it’s home from home, if you like, a place the Scots have made their own, a bit like Wembley. It’s bad, obviously, just not quite as awful as the Italians. Thank goodness they joined the party back in 2000.
To sit alongside their fifth place finish, the Scots won exactly one match. That has been the average number of wins over the last eight years. It is what it is, as Scott Johnson never tires of telling us, but the question still nags, does it really have to be like this?
Obviously Scotland have a shortage of numbers, there are too few good rugby players, too few of Test level, never mind world-class, but this lot are under-achieving, they are surely better than they have shown, heaps better than yesterday.
The problem with Scotland’s problems is that they won’t stand still. Just like that Whack-a-Mole carnival game, you no sooner batter one issue into submission than another problem pops up elsewhere. The outside centre issue has morphed into a lack of depth in the front row. The lack of tries has become an inability to kick penalties from any longer than chipping distance. Indiscipline is a brand new problem, and not just for Stuart Hogg. The one exception to this is at stand-off, that thorny old problem remains rooted to the spot, harder to shift than a Frenchman in a ski queue.
Had Duncan Weir not possessed the audacity to kick that last minute drop goal in Rome the stand-off would have been looking at a nuclear winter. Admittedly he had little enough to work with for three of the games, but even when the forwards bossed things he struggled. The stand-off had one clearance charged down in Rome and when he was presented with a two-on-one down the left flank in the first half he butchered the chance, slipped and coughed up a turnover. Then he missed a penalty kick and threw an interception pass against France and he was no better than anyone else yesterday in Cardiff, overcooking one chip kick to the wing.
Weir had enjoyed just five starts for Glasgow ahead of this tournament so he obviously needed more game time after Gregor Townsend favoured Ruaridh Jackson at the start of the season. Jackson is leaving Glasgow, Weir is being retained, so either Townsend has changed his mind on the relative merits of his two tens or Scott Johnson is calling the shots?
There are several scenarios that might yet play out ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Bath’s Tom Heathcote moves clubs and comes back into the reckoning. Given the number one status at Glasgow and the regular starts that come with it, Weir improves. However, his Warrior team mate Finn Russell threatens to challenge for the Glasgow No.10 jersey, which would place everyone back at square one with two stand-offs both needing time in the saddle.
Russell is the 21-year-old apprentice from Stirling who played several seasons at Ayr and who remains the only professional stand-off in Scotland to view a rugby ball as something other than an unexploded bomb. He has what all good stand-offs have, composure, and that places him in a pretty exclusive club north of the Border.
Rumour has it that Vern Cotter sees Hogg as the next Scotland ten, but it would be a mistake to take Scotland’s best broken field runner and place him in amongst all the heavy traffic where his attacking prowess could be well marshalled and his defensive weakness would be targeted ruthlessly… just ask Chris Paterson, who experienced exactly that back in 2004.
A few injuries to the wide men has exposed Scotland’s lack of depth with Sean Maitland and Tim Visser joined latterly by Sean Lamont and Tommy Seymour on the injured roster. Lamont has become the talisman for this group of players…the “Squadfather” as he has been dubbed. He remains an immensely influential player and the team missed his muscular defence yesterday. If everyone else adopted his controlled aggression Scotland would be a lot better placed and still he shows some classy touches, helping Tommy Allan off the floor after catching the Italian stand-off momentarily late in Rome.
I figured that Alex Dunbar may have lacked a half yard of pace for the 13 shirt but I was happy to be proven wrong in Rome where the Glasgow man was clocked at 33.8kph thanks to the GPS gizmos they wear these days, faster than anyone else has managed in the three years they have been used. Dunbar scored Scotland’s first two tries, had a hand in their third and a body-check in their fourth and he kept going yesterday in Cardiff. His emergence has been the highlight of the tournament for Scotland.
With plenty of competition for the two lock places, Scotland’s problems up front are in the back and front row of the scrum where the cupboard resembles Old Mother Hubbard’s.
Not until Scott Lawson was given a start in the third Test of the series against Italy did Scotland boast a functioning lineout and he was a little wayward yesterday. Not until Geoff Cross replaced Moray Low 38 minutes later did the Scots boast a stable scrum (and Cross is deemed superfluous by Edinburgh). In effect, the first two and a half Tests were a write-off as far as the Scots were concerned because they didn’t field a pack that could win its own set piece possession. They were effectively fighting with one hand tied behind their back, little wonder they failed to land a single blow.
Scotland need their young props to grow up quickly and some of their old ones to punch their weight. As for hookers, Lawson showed the benefits of accuracy and it isn’t worth benching Ross Ford until or unless he can hit the board never mind the bull. The Warriors’ duo of Kevin Bryce (much the same size as Ford) and Fraser Brown should be on the bus to North America in June to test them in the relatively benign surroundings of a summer tour.
The backrow is another headache, too many decent all rounders, not enough specialist stand outs. You suspect that either Ross Rennie or John Barclay, the forgotten man of Scottish rugby, will be back before too long and Ryan Wilson has to do more both with and without the ball to justify the selectors’ faith.
Vern Cotter takes over a demoralised squad who have seriously under-achieved in this campaign, performing miserably against Ireland, England and Wales and failing to beat the worst French team of recent memory. You have to hope that new coach Cotter relishes a challenge.