I’M SURE I wasn’t alone in having found the defeat to England more disappointing and frustrating than Scotland’s previous loss to Italy. In the Italian match, it felt like we were sucker-punched and that, overall, we were strangely flat, but there were also clearly identifiable and easily fixable mistakes that allowed Italy to sneak a win.
And I know it’s not a desirable state of mind, but there was also the nagging thought that, well, this is Scottish sport, and that we were on the wrong end of one of those aberrant results in which we specialise. Clearly, there is always the hope that we can lose the unfortunate knack of snatching defeats from the jaws of scrappy and barely deserved victories, but there was a certain resignation after the match that we are not yet quite at that stage.
The performance against England was more surprising, as it showed up other traditional flaws, those of tactical naivety and an inability to adapt to what was going on on the pitch, which Scotland had seemed to be shaking off through the autumn and the start of the Six Nations. The fact is, I come from a generation of Scottish players who don’t really have the right to be overly critical of the current crop, and neither would I want to be, as I know how hard it is to win for Scotland. I was part of some pretty poor Scotland teams and performances, and the 2015 version is very far from being poor.
But, in a way, that makes the previous two losses even more frustrating, as Scottish rugby currently possesses just about enough high-quality players, plus the infrastructure, the coach, even a nice new pitch, to allow them to be consistently competitive. Some of the rugby they have played since Vern Cotter took over had fans believing that we were slowly and belatedly turning a corner. And I’m sure the boys themselves know they are better than what they showed against England, and will be more exasperated than anyone not to have registered a win so far in the tournament.
Glasgow, Edinburgh and even the Scotland team itself have recently provided some hard evidence of the progress that has been made by Scottish rugby in reeling in the likes of the Irish. The under-20s side, a pretty good barometer of the state of the nation, is as good as it has ever been. I can even see it in the young guys I play with at Watsonians (yes, don’t laugh, but I do still occasionally pull on my short shorts on and inspect a few rucks of a Saturday). Those of them who spend some of their time training with Edinburgh are infinitely more clued up, conditioned and sure of themselves on a rugby pitch than I was at 19 or 20.
The problem is that the Irish system has been producing street-smart players for more than a decade, and they certainly aren’t standing still. The prime example of that system is, of course, Brian O’Driscoll. To watch him in training, you wouldn’t have said he had the most impressive or natural-looking skillset, but what set him apart, and what sets apart the likes of Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Jamie Heaslip, was his ability to make the right decision 95 times out of a hundred when put under the intense pressure of a Test match.
You could say that this unique ability to read the game and to provide the decisive intervention is innate, as, otherwise, there would be a new O’Driscoll appearing every year. But there is no doubt that a highly competitive youth competition, along with a rapidly organised professional structure at provincial level, helped him along his way.
Nevertheless, Scotland have their own extremely savvy players: the likes of Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Greig Laidlaw seem to know rugby inside out. Again, this is why it was surprising that Scotland didn’t change their tactics during the match at Twickenham. There isn’t the time or space to do anything too complicated in international rugby, and, in that game, it would have taken a very simple change of focus for the result to have potentially gone the other way. The precise reason why something isn’t working isn’t always easy to pinpoint in the heat of battle – it could be the kick itself, the kick chase, or maybe Jack Nowell is simply having the game of his life – but the first ten minutes of the match provided clues that it would have been a good idea to change tack. The irony is that the end of that first half also provided the template for an alternative ploy, that is keep the ball in hand, move the point of contact and get the ball away from the ruck as quickly as possible. Admittedly, attempting to play rugby out of your own 22 isn’t ideal, but, surely, as the second half wore on, it would have been preferable to conceding yet another line-break as a result of a kick. But, despite the different disappointments of the Six Nations so far, it wouldn’t be a surprise if we were to beat the best team in the competition today. We’re perverse like that.
Whatever happens, I’m sure Vern Cotter will be telling the players to think about the process rather than the outcome (apologies if that strays into management-speak). I suppose, in this case, that means the players aren’t going into the game thinking, “We have to win to avoid the wooden spoon”, but rather are focused purely on what their job is from moment to moment, as well as how they might make a significant difference in any given action. It’s a truism, but when confidence is low you have to get your basics right – keep your defence tight, be accurate in the three set-pieces and kick well for territory or to compete. And then, when you have the ball, keep it simple. Don’t get bored going through the phases (Ireland certainly don’t) and have faith that, if you keep applying pressure, the points will come.
I have a feeling that the match today will be a cracker. And that, if Scotland put in the big performance of which they are certainly capable, they might just be rewarded with a win.