IAN McGeechan used to talk of the importance of a team having a “strong spine”. By that, as I recall, he meant a line running from full back, through the halves, to the hooker and number 8. If this spine was strong you were in a good position to develop an all-round game. If there were weak links in the spine, you were in trouble.
You see his point if you look at Ireland and England, the best two teams in this year’s Six Nations. The Irish spine is Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray, Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip: the English one is Mike Brown, Owen Farrell, Danny Care, Dylan Hartley and either Billy Vunipola or Ben Morgan. Of course there are very influential players in other positions: Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony for Ireland; Courtney Lawes and the captain, Chris Robshaw, for England. Nevertheless it is the strength of the spine that is so impressive.
How does the Scottish spine compare? Rather badly, is the answer. The top and bottom of the spine are fine: Stuart Hogg and David Denton. But at half-back Greig Laidlaw was out of form and, consequently, lacking in confidence. Duncan Weir may develop into an effective international fly-half, but he is some way short of being that yet. He wouldn’t even get on to the bench for England or Ireland; in England indeed he would be several places back in the queue. Scott Lawson has played well, better indeed than many thought he could, but if he was Irish he would be behind Best and Sean Cronin.
So, this season, only 40 per cent of our spine has been strong – 50 per cent, perhaps, if you give Lawson half-marks. This is one reason why we lose matches, four out of five in this year’s tournament. All right, we should have beaten France, which would have brought us up to the 40 per cent mark, but then we came as near as dammit to losing in Rome. One win out of five is probably a fair reflection of where we are.
We have good and influential players beyond the spine: Matt Scott, Ryan Grant and Richie Gray, for instance. We have wings capable of scoring tries, and Alex Dunbar scored two excellent ones from outside centre against Italy. Yet all this merely underlines the conclusion to be drawn from McGeechan’s insistence on the importance of having a strong spine: if it is fragile, you will lose more matches than you win.
Setting aside the occasional freak match, like the one in Cardiff where for an hour we played with only 14 men, the difference between winning and losing usually comes down to the occasional moment of brilliance or the odd defensive lapse. There is also the question of discipline – not giving away penalties and exercising good judgement at the breakdown.
Otherwise the statistical evidence relating to territory and possession rarely shows one side as vastly better or worse than the other. Except against England we had lots of possession and territory – even in Cardiff these statistics were in our favour. The same might be said of Italy as of us. But neither Scotland nor Italy asked many questions of their opponents’ defence, certainly very few difficult ones, while both made too many errors in defence. Hence the gulf between the top four and the bottom two; and the sad thing is, it’s been like that for years now.
It follows that one of Vern Cotter’s first tasks is to strengthen the spine. It’s easier of course to state the question than to find an answer. It’s partly a matter of selection. The spine might have been stronger if Chris Cusiter had been preferred to Laidlaw, for Cusiter, free at long last from a succession of injuries, has been back in the form that made him a very young Lion in 2005. At hooker the first question is whether Ross Ford can return to the level that had him selected as one of the very few Scottish Lions in 2009; the second whether Lawson is the best available for the next couple of years; the third, whether Glasgow’s Pat MacArthur may have more to offer than either Ford or Lawson.
Fly-half remains the problem it has been for years. I am one in what I suppose is a shrinking minority who would prefer Ruaridh Jackson to Weir, even while dismayed or exasperated by his too-frequent lapses of judgement. But it seems likely, and is probably right, that Weir should remain at 10 for at least the first Tests of our summer tour.
The third candidate is Tom Heathcote, but at his club, Bath, he is behind George Ford, who is himself still behind Farrell in the England pecking order. Young Ford is a very fine player indeed, reminiscent in many ways of Rob Andrew, but it would say something sad, if truthful, about our present predicament if we were to pick a player for Scotland who isn’t first choice for his English club.