No tries, no points and no hope on Saturday – something has to change
SCOTLAND have lost heavily to England before and will do so again. That is the nature of the balance of power between the countries.
But most, if not all, of the severe defeats in the past have offered some crumbs of comfort. Perhaps the odd try or at least a few points scored or even an encouraging, optimism-inducing piece of skill. On Saturday there was nothing.
No tries. No points. No hope.
On Saturday, what could go wrong did go wrong. And that includes the few things that were going right. For example, David Denton, Scotland’s best player, was bafflingly substituted at a time when it was his fellow back-row forward Chris Fusaro who had run himself into the ground.
Fusaro gave everything he had on his debut but the reality was that Kelly Brown would have been far better suited to this sort of match. Fusaro is a genuine openside, and Brown never was and never will be a 7. England, though, operated without a real 7 yet still won the game 20-0, so interim coach Scott Johnson’s argument for dropping his captain and capping Fusaro in his place was left looking groundless.
The lineout misfired, the scrum was never secure and ball to the backs was slow. All further fuel for the suggestion, widely made when the team was named, that members of the pack other than Brown should have been dropped following the 28-6 defeat in Ireland.
With a fortnight between the Calcutta Cup match and the next game in Rome, Johnson at least has some time to mull over his selection. The key question is how conservative he should be.
While critical of the performance against England, Johnson insisted he had faith in his players to produce more and, certainly, they are all capable of playing better than they did two days ago.
So does Johnson give the bulk of them another chance, and stick to a gameplan designed to eke out a narrow but confidence-boosting win over the Italians? Or does he opt for something more adventurous, with the aim of teasing out the creativity that is undoubtedly there in some of the team?
Put another way, does the coach stick with Duncan Weir at stand-off and plan for a kicking game, or does he move Stuart Hogg up from full-back? Johnson talked about a possible switch to 10 for Hogg after announcing the team to play Ireland, but he meant late in the game. He has also discussed the topic with the player himself, who is more than ready to volunteer for the role. “I would love to step up there,” Hogg said. “Whatever is best for the team.
“Especially in games like that [against England], where you’re not getting much ball at 15, stepping up to 10 would be the ideal opportunity.
“If I have to step up at 10 and start there, I’ll do that. But it’s about whatever Scott Johnson says, whatever [assistant coach] Duncan Hodge wants.
“It’s their decision. I can’t have any influence on that, unfortunately.
“I had the chat at the start of the Six Nations, saying there could be a chance of stepping up to 10. That put a smile on my face and I told the coach that I’d do whatever is best for the team.
“But fair play to Duncan Weir. He’s done well for the team in the last couple of games. It would be rude to take him away from there.”
The full-back might be too polite to assert outright that Weir should be dropped, but coaches should have no such qualms. Last summer with the Lions, Hogg showed just how effective he can be when starting at stand-off, even allowing for the fact that Italy will be tougher opponents than a provincial Australian team.
Yet there are two reservations, at least, which have to be addressed. First, who do you put at full-back if you name Hogg at stand-off? Peter Murchie and Greig Tonks, his closest rivals for the No 15 jersey, are both out injured, Jack Cuthbert has been playing well for Edinburgh but is inexperienced and, with Sean Maitland also out, there is limited scope to shuffle the back three around.
Second, is there any point in putting a flair player like Hogg at 10 if the pack are always on the back foot? As Hogg himself added, “The set piece is where it all begins, and without that platform it makes the rest of the game really, really difficult.”
When you have little possession, and none of it good possession, there is a limit to what the most gifted stand-off can do. Asked directly if he would fancy his chances at 10 even if Scotland’s set piece continued to be woeful, he replied: “‘Not really, because I would just be tackling all the time!
“Whatever is best for the team, that’s what I want. There is nothing we can take from the England game. The progress hasn’t happened this year.
“We’re zero from two now. We just have to get back up, put some smiles back on the boys’ faces and try to win this championship.”
That last remark, of course, was a bit of party-line positivity. Scotland are not going to win the championship. Trying not to win the Wooden Spoon is a more realistic aim.
To be fair to Weir, the pack have done him no favours, and he has had little or no chance to display the greater versatility that Johnson now sees in his game, and which led the coach to omit his Glasgow rival Ruaridh Jackson from the squad. And matches between Italy and Scotland have, in any case, tended to be tight, nervous affairs rather than festivals of running rugby, meaning that Weir’s traditional strength of kicking for position could be seen as the less risky option.
Johnson therefore looks likely to retain Weir, in the hope that a better display from the forwards can provide a platform for the stand-off to show what he can do. But, if the game is in the balance with 20 minutes to go, the coach will surely give Hogg some overdue time in the limelight.