As a Scotland player, the build up to almost any match is accompanied by some sort of unwanted statistic. I’m no rugby anorak, but one that occurred to me this week is that we have not won in Cardiff since 2002. I had a notion that I was on the pitch for that game, but only the dimmest memory of the details, so I looked it up on YouTube to find that some incurable completist had taken the trouble to upload it. I’m guessing that his main motivation was that this was Bill McLaren’s final commentary on an international match, because the game itself didn’t merit being recorded for posterity.
It was horrible. I had to fast forward through certain bits as my embarrassment for all involved, not least myself, was getting too much.
An extra 14 years of professionalism has changed the sport almost beyond recognition and that 2002 match has a slightly Pathe newsreel, uncontrolled look to it now.
There are a handful of players from both teams that could be transposed directly into the 2016 version of rugby and not look out of place. Say, Bryan Redpath, Glenn Metcalfe and Tom Smith for Scotland and Rob Howley, Stephen Jones and Colin Charvis for Wales. But most of the rest of us give the impression of not really having a clue what we were doing, at least by modern measures. Some wouldn’t look out of place in a pub team. In fact, my clearest memory of the match is tackling one of the Welsh subs and being engulfed by the unmistakable smell of last night’s lager.
But the poor quality of the match wasn’t actually indicative of the 2002 Six Nations as a whole. In the early 2000s, a clear hierarchy had emerged, with England having recently overtaken France as the major force in the tournament, Ireland third in the pecking order and improving and Wales, Scotland and Italy fighting for the crumbs.
The idea, in the immediate aftermath of Scotland’s scrappy 2002 win, that we were about to enter such a dry spell against Wales would have been unthinkable. France and England had surged ahead of the rest since the start of professionalism, and while it seemed unlikely we could bridge that gap any time soon, we always felt we had a chance of picking up points from one of the other three.
But then, almost by accident it seemed at the time, Wales made their great leap forward. Whilst we were floundering under Williams, Wales built on the confidence they had gained from the 2003 World Cup, culminating in their 2005 Grand Slam. So, when Warren Gatland arrived in 2008 to perform a reboot, he was working with players who already had the knowledge (ie not just hope, or belief) that they could beat every other team in the competition. He was then able to bolt on the hard-nosed, physical approach and simple game-plan, a game-plan that has barely changed in the past eight years, which have made their success sustainable.
Having talents like Jamie Roberts, Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton certainly helps, but that single-minded clarity of purpose has been key in making Wales more than the sum of their parts. It is important for any international side to have a clear, easily quantifiable identity. So Ireland are ultra-organised, stifling at the breakdown and have a superb kick-and-chase game. England look to be getting back to their traditional setpiece-based power game, at least for the time being, and Guy Noves has set his stall out early, with France in playing an off-loading, Toulousain style against Italy.
At the moment, Scotland, too, are striving for their own unmistakable modus operandi. In the past, with Frank Hadden, we went wide to wide while, under Andy Robinson, we played some lovely multi-phase stuff (although, similar to last Saturday, sometimes overdoing it in the wrong areas of the pitch). Under Vern Cotter, we seem to have a template of hitting up forward pods off nine, alternated with going out of the back of the pod so Finn Russell can try to get Mark Bennett, Tommy Seymour or Stuart Hogg the chance of a one-on-one. It’s simple enough stuff and, as Wales demonstrate, there is nothing wrong with simple, but perhaps against England we weren’t quite ferocious enough in the carry or the clear-out to make it effective. It was all a bit laboured.
Fortunately for us, unlike 2002, we now have the players with the skill and physical attributes to tweak and progress this gameplan. It’s not necessarily what you do but the way that you do it. That is what really gives you an identity. In this respect, I would look to Exeter Chiefs for inspiration. They are playing the best rugby in the UK at the moment, not because they do anything particularly clever, but because of the visible intent with which they approach the game. From minute one they are at the opposition, asking different questions. They go wide; hit up off nine; pick through the middle of the ruck; drive lineouts to score. Pretty bog standard stuff, but all done with the maximum of tempo and accuracy.
That’s what we need today: sheer intent. Speed the game up, be brave and go wide early, get a bit more speed into our phase play, kick for space if we are going nowhere. And, apologies, but best not look to 2002 for inspiration.