Georgia’s desire to gain access to the Six Nations was one of the themes in the build-up to Saturday’s final autumn Test at Rugby Park, but the after-match was dominated by Scotland’s burning aspiration to make a real impact on next year’s competition.
The series may be finished, with a satisfying two wins out of three, but Scotland coach Vern Cotter views the final phase of his time in charge of the national team as a work in progress, with the real work very much ahead.
“We have been very open about how the fact that this is not just an autumn series and then Six Nations. This is eight games taking us through until the season finishes,” said Cotter. “We’ve tried not to make the same mistakes and improve the whole way through.
“Having extra depth in the squad helps as there are injuries at this level. There has been a shift and I think it is pretty obvious to see.”
Georgia were hugely competitive for big parts of Saturday’s game, but utterly outclassed in other periods and the gulf in quality in wide areas was starkly exposed. The visiting coach, Milton Haig, was rightly proud of his players’ efforts and said the only way his team could bridge the gap is to gain more fixtures with tier one nations.
They actually led this entertaining Test when Vasil Lobzhanidze exploited a defensive lapse by wing Tommy Seymour to scamper in the right-hand corner.
There was swift redemption for Seymour as he won the kick race to get the touch over the line and it soon became clear that the Scottish forwards were keen to make a point against their much-vaunted opposing eight. The home side bombarded the Georgians with a fearsome frontal assault and struck a body blow when they won a penalty try.
When Sean Maitland crashed over the home side had taken full control and Stuart Hogg’s mesmeric kick and take, with a perfect bounce into his arms courtesy of skill and the rugby gods, had the Scots threatening a big, big score.
When Hamish Watson got his first try for Scotland early in the second half and Greig Laidlaw added his 13th point with his typically unerring boot the Georgians looked down and out on the canvas but, as the benches started to steadily empty, the visitors showed admirable steel and dominated large parts of the second period.
Lobzhanidze bagged a second try from a huge Georgian scrum, before Hogg finished off a brilliant counter-attack started by debutant replacement scrum-half Ali Price’s quick thinking at a tap penalty and linked nicely by sub wing Rory Hughes.
“They found themselves often in their half with the ball in the hands of their No 15 and instead of playing at us they were kicking to us, putting the ball in Finn Russell and Hogg’s hands,” was Cotter’s assessment of how Scotland had taken a grip of the contest.
“In the second half they kicked the ball a little bit less. I thought they narrowed up. But they got very little ball in that first half.
“In the second half they powered up and were doing those sneaky picks in rucks. They’re a good team because they’re able to adapt. They came back to their scrum and their big forwards. They were hard to contain.
“They haven’t lost many games over the past four or five years. The most important thing was to start well and have an impact on them psychologically and I thought the guys did well.”
The focus now switches to that Six Nations opener at home to Ireland on 4 February and, assessing this series as a whole, Cotter said: “We need to improve. I thought against Australia we did it all right but then Argentina really put heat on us.
“That is a compliment as teams see we are a good attacking team now and they try to break us down and slow it up. We have had to work extra hard.
“[Contact consultant] Richie Gray has been helping us with that and he is doing a great job. We need to have a real focus on that with our Pro12 teams. Ireland have been focusing on that for a number of years and you saw that against the All Blacks. It is something we need to improve and is one of our focal points.”
Scotland will reconvene in late January to start their Six Nations preparation at the Oriam high performance centre in south-west Edinburgh and Cotter admitted that the state-of-the-art £33 million facility had been a boon.
“It has made preparing easier,” said the coach. “We haven’t had time lost through weather. Previously we’ve had times on the back pitches at Murrayfield or at St Andrews and the weather has kicked in, you get a horizontal wind and lineouts are a waste of time.
“I think you can see that in our lineout performance. Okay, we lost two in the second half [against Georgia] and we’re disappointed with that, but we can work calmly in an environment that helps us. I can’t give you a percentage figure,but it’s an enormous boost. It would have been great to have it 20 years ago, but it’s here now. You can have a practice and technical session inside, a skills session inside and you can just not worry about the ball blowing out of your hands.”