WE’VE all done it at some point in our lives. Blurted out something stupid before, like carp at feeding time, desperately attempting to gobble the words back down our gullet before they can reach anyone’s ears.
Sadly for Mark Dodson the SRU chief executive was talking in front of half a dozen microphones back in June when he pronounced Scottish Rugby’s goal was to win the 2015 World Cup. If he could take those words back and tuck them away for a future date when the garden is looking a little rosier, he surely would. Had Dodson made the statement when Scotland were at an all-time high of sixth in the IRB pecking order, it would have sounded a little flippant. Now that the team have slumped to an all-time low of 12th in the rankings, the target looks like lunacy. The comment has latched onto the seat of his pants like a bull terrier onto a bone and will hound the poor man for the rest of his days at Murrayfield.
And yet we should feel some sympathy for the Englishman. If the SRU’s top man can’t talk up Scottish rugby then who can? Not the Scots – that much is certain. We are world beaters when it comes to pointing out flaws but a long way down the rankings when it comes to burying the hatchet, pulling together and emphasising the positives. If Dodson is overly-optimistic it is only an attempt to bring some balance to Scottish rugby – which almost enjoys wallowing in its own discomfort.
First things first. I was speaking to a man on Thursday evening who has followed Scottish rugby, both as an insider and from the sidelines, for well over 50 years. We both agreed that we’d seen worse Scottish teams than this one, far worse. Scotland are a decent team playing poorly. If the yardstick is the potential to be British and Irish Lions Test players, Scotland probably have as many world class players as England do and, given the disparity in resources, that is something to be proud of, even if Stuart Lancaster may not agree. Ryan Grant, Richie Gray and David Denton could all be in the mix next June and, if the real Ross Ford can reclaim his body, so might the Kelso hooker.
The forwards are highly competitive against most teams. The backs may be a mixed bag but at least they are young and they can and will get better over time, especially when Sean Maitland, Mark Bennett, Greig Tonks and Duncan Weir add to the competition for places.
What can’t be argued is that the team as a whole has performed below expectations and no one escapes censure – least of all skipper Kelly Brown.
After their Test against Australia, England captain Chris Robshaw was pilloried for opting to put two penalties into touch rather than kick at goal. England eventually lost by six points. The Scotland skipper did the same thing on seven occasions in the first half against Tonga and every time Scotland failed to score, the Tongans grew in stature. The tactic smacked of disrespect and, if you want to goad a South Sea islander, that is one surefire way to go about it.
Leadership is crucial to success on the field but the Scots’ psyche is not comfortable with accepting the huge responsibilities that go with the obvious honour.
Perhaps “the modern Scots psyche” would be more accurate. After all this is the country that produced Ian McLauchlan, Jim Telfer, David Sole, Finlay Calder and Gavin Hastings.
The lack of leadership among the current crop of players serves as a stark contrast. It has got to the stage where, like Mike Brearley used to in the England cricket team, Al Kellock commands a place in the national XV for his leadership ability alone.
Last Saturday at Pittodrie wasn’t the only time this Scotland team has put on such a poor performance in front of a full house that coach Andy Robinson washed his hands of them there and then. If anything, their showing in Rome during last season’s Six Nations was even worse. At least the Scots could have beaten Tonga (not that they deserved to) but they never remotely looked like besting Italy in the Olympic Stadium.
Go back one step further and it could be argued that the decline set in when Scotland bossed and bullied England at Murrayfield in February in a way that would have given Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Dean Richards a sea of cold sweats and yet still lost. One kick by Dan Parks was charged down and that was enough. The Scots had all the territory and possession but the magic ingredient needed to turn them into points was missing and, if the Tongan performance is a guide, it remains down the back of a sofa somewhere.
Much of the problem results from the formative years of the Scottish age-grade players, when they are exposed to meaningless rugby almost every week unless their team reaches the final of the Brewin Dolphin Cup or the under-18 club equivalent.
In a recent interview in The Scotsman former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith pointed out that New Zealand’s coaches enjoyed little time with the top players, who have learned all they needed to know long before they are allowed to wear the hallowed jersey. The opposite is true in Scotland.
Smith also mentioned that school teams in New Zealand are so competitive that some employ sports psychologists, while Scottish schools, with a few notable exceptions, are still operating in the dark ages.
The lucky few who shine at age-grade level move into the professional ranks but our two pro teams are almost unique in top-level sport in that the only consequence of utter failure is endless hand-wringing. It’s not much fun for the players and coaches getting a kicking in the media but it sure beats signing on at the dole office come Monday morning.
One former Scotland international who pursued a club career in England admitted that he never properly understood professional sport until he sat in a pre-match dressing room and listened to the club owner threaten to fire the entire team if they didn’t find a way to win.
The RaboDirect Pro12 offers all the intensity of a sauna. The league is the poor man of Europe right now. The Italians bring little to the table and the Welsh have lost a host of their best players to France. If it wasn’t for the big Irish trio, the Scottish players wouldn’t get a proper league workout all year. The intensity of rugby that comes with the Heineken Cup is badly needed but, given recent events, the loss of one automatic qualifiation place (or even both) for the Scottish sides would at least lend some much-needed meaning to the players’ day jobs. While the play-offs bring competition to the top half of the table, those teams in the bottom half might as well pack up and go home – as Edinburgh did last season.
Professionalism allowed the big dogs of Test rugby to use their resources but it also did another important thing, it cleaned up the game. Scottish rugby had been built on what was euphemistically termed “vigorous rucking” – often little more than an excuse to kick a man. But with boots-on-bodies now about as popular as smoking cigars in a creche, the Scots have had to reinvent themselves. It’s an ongoing process. They have misplaced their mojo and slavishly copying others won’t get it back.
Andy Robinson pinned his colours to attacking with ball in hand and picked players with that in mind. There will almost certainly be an interim coach for the Six Nations and Scott Johnson, left, remains favourite, but the first thing Robinson’s long-term replacement must do is work out what style of rugby best suits the available players and then follow it relentlessly.
Should it happen to include unleashing bloody pandemonium at the breakdown, then so much the better.
Five to revive Scots
Duncan Weir: Should compete with Tom Heathcote for this Six Nations and many more to come.
Al Kellock: Leader who leaves nothing on the field. Make him captain now.
Stuart McInally: A warrior, he has better distribution and vision than David Denton and is future captaincy material.
Alex Dunbar: Muscular and skilful, all he lacks is the confidence to fulfil his potential.
The Real Ross Ford: Come back, please.