IT was surprising to read the comments attributed to Stuart Hogg during the week regarding the lack of respect he feels is given to the Scotland team by the English. Surprising because it came from Hogg, one of the very few world-class players Scotland have possessed in the professional era and also a guy who, by dint of his own hard work, competitiveness and pure talent, needs nobody else’s seal of approval.
Of course, it is likely that this was a throwaway comment that was then understandably seized upon by the press, but the fact that it was said at all betrays a degree of that innate Scottish insecurity which lies in every one of us. It can be a blessing and a curse, that questioning, dissatisfied streak but, unfortunately, in a sporting context, it is more often than not a curse. And it may even be a contributing factor to the stark reality that Scottish rugby hasn’t really earned a great deal of respect over the past 15 years. But, our relatively lowly standing aside, the fact is that English players, or French players for that matter, barely spend a moment considering what goes on in the rest of the rugby world or, conversely, worrying about how they are perceived in that world. With the exception of this week, which England’s players have spent minutely analysing every aspect of Scotland’s game, they never really give us a second thought, good or bad.
But Hogg’s thoughts are probably coloured by the way Scottish rugby is presented by the national broadcasters, which, in turn, shapes the broader rugby public’s opinion. Even from the armchair, it has been frustrating to see how long it has taken the likes of Sky to grudgingly acknowledge Glasgow’s excellence, and when, for example, they opted to engage two Welsh pundits versus zero Scots for their coverage of their recent match against the Ospreys, it becomes clear that “balance” is not their main priority. The BBC, with their coverage of the Six Nations, do manage to offer a more balanced platform, if only because any team not attaining the fault-free rugby of some half-remembered golden age are given equally short shrift. In fact, it often seems we are inconveniencing some of the older pundits by asking them to comment at all on the poor fare they are forced to sit through.
There are extremely even-handed and knowledgeable commentators out there – Ben Kay on BT Sport springs to mind – but the fact is, as a Scottish rugby player, it can seem like the whole world is against you. Referees, broadcasters, the public, ball-boys, stadium announcers, you name it. Of course, a sustained period of success, such as Wales have enjoyed, could change all that but, until that time, you just hope the young Scottish lads manage to shrug off the criticism (or even the indifference) that comes their way and continue on the path that Vern Cotter has set them on. The best thing they can do is disregard all extraneous influences.
Many fans understandably despaired after the Italy defeat but this was tempered by a dose of realism from others. There have been encouraging signs in this Six Nations but this was a reminder of which rung of the ladder we are on. If anything, I am sure it will have strengthened the resolve of both the squad and Cotter to improve and not let it happen again. He strikes you as a man you wouldn’t want to disappoint twice.
England will have been equally disappointed with their last performance. However, the truth is that Ireland hardly allowed them room to breathe. Barring a few errors of judgement and poorly-executed kicks, England didn’t do a huge amount wrong, but Ireland exerted so much brutal pressure on them in every aspect of play that they barely got into the game until the final quarter. Scotland don’t quite possess Ireland’s level of power and accuracy at the breakdown but trying to emulate it is a good start. And as well as matching them up front, there has to be a focus on preventing George Ford from dictating. Just how good he is has been highlighted by the way Bath have struggled during his absence over the Six Nations.
So, deal with their pack, stop Ford, play with the attacking swagger we saw against France and Wales and win at Twickenham for the first time since 1983. Doesn’t seem too much to ask.
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