WHILE much of the focus has fallen upon Stuart Hogg’s moment of madness last year, Geoff Cross has his own unhappy memories of Welsh games presuming, of course, that the popular prop has any memories of the incident at all.
Cross made his international debut against the Principality at Murrayfield back in 2009 and the heady mixture of adrenaline and foolhardiness coursed through his veins until it reached his brain and rational thought was replaced by something far more dangerous.
Lee Byrne charged in to catch a Scottish bomb and Cross charged into Byrne. The tackle looked uglier than it was: the Welsh full-back walked away from the scene of the crime, which is more than you could say for Cross. The Scot knocked himself out and had to be carted from the field on a stretcher just 20 minutes into his international career. The Irish referee Alain Rolland displayed his diplomatic side by declining to flash the inevitable yellow card at the prone prop who, in any event, could see nothing but stars. Wales scored two tries while Scotland were reduced to 14 men.
After Hogg’s hiccup last time out and Cross’ brainstorm on his debut, it is suggested to the prop that the Scots would be well advised to keep a full complement on the field this afternoon if they want to record their first win over Wales since 2007.
“I think that’s an excellent suggestion to win a game of rugby, I absolutely agree with you,” he replies enthusiastically from behind one year’s worth of carefully cultivated face fluff. “Yes, it was my debut. You know, I’ve not done a lot of training receiving high balls and I think that was enthusiasm and ambition over purpose and training. In an international environment you get punished for that – and I did.”
The amiable Cross is a journalist’s dream. He is thoughtful, unfailingly polite and occasionally very, very funny whether he means to be or not. Twice in the interview he returns to a previous question because he thinks he may not have done it justice and at one point he plucks a quote from Spider-Man, of all places. Everything is said in a basso profondo voice that isn’t often heard outside of BBC Radio Four and the bushy beard makes those Brian Blessed comparisons all the more apt.
If Cross is feeling sorry for himself at being “let go” by Edinburgh he doesn’t show it and two league tries in four starts for London Irish is not bad going for a tighthead prop. However, he knows he is in the Scotland XV today because Euan Murray is in the kirk and he also knows that he needs a good performance if he is to trouble the selectors when the World Cup squad is settled upon.
He has been on decent form in the Aviva Premiership, which is a hard league for a prop to shine in, with an added emphasis on the set scrum, although Cross insists that it is no tougher than the best of the Pro12.
What has changed for him is the “clarity” of the message that the Scotland coaching team is getting across. Rugby is a fiendishly complicated game and there is a limited amount of information players can take on board, even boffins like Cross (a qualified doctor), so clarity of message is equally important on the Six Nations campaign trail as it is in politics.
“I think that the template that we have in place for winning, this coaching team... is it all right to talk about coaching teams or do you want to make this personal?” he asks. Upon being assured that it is fine to talk teams rather than individuals, Cross continues.
“I think that the template that has been put in place is the clearest template that I can remember and clarity is good because if I am clear on what I have to do I just need to get on and do it and the coaches can then judge on your behaviour and that is a wonderful position to be in.”
As to the specifics of what Vern Cotter and his assistants are looking for, Cross name-checks the usual suspects, starting with the set piece.
“The stats we have looked at from our analysis team suggest that they [Wales] do the majority of their scoring from set pieces,” says Cross. “So what we want to do is prevent that from being something that they can launch effectively off and if we can do that as a pack then that is a great big tick in the box.
“I think this week against the Welsh for the forward pack the set piece will be important, as will the contact zone, so that means we’ve really got to be maintaining the quality of our ball so we can be imposing ourselves on them. That is brutal, direct work in the contact zone. If I can do more of that, that is a big feather for selection going forward. I think it’s a big feather in any forward’s cap.”
Cross finds himself up against Gethin Jenkins this afternoon, a brilliant all-rounder, although most pundits would give his understudy Paul James the nod on scrummaging strength alone. The latter will come on at some point and Cross will be given a thorough examination when he does.
Where Scotland do field expertise is across an exciting backline that showed some of its promise by scoring the only try of the match in Paris last week. Not so long ago the Scottish forwards produced vast quantities of quick ball but the backs didn’t have the first idea of what to do with it. Now the roles are reversed and if the Scottish big men can do their task, you fancy the Scottish backs can do some damage.
“There appears to be more ambition in the attack that we are executing,” says Cross when asked what has changed. “I think there is a more fluid structure that gives us more opportunities and I’m going to quote from Spider-Man now: with great power comes great responsibility. If you have the power that that flexibility gives you in attack then you have the respon-sibility to build it correctly and see the right options and take them.”
Is it now vital for Scotland to register a win or risk another false dawn?
“We are a group of players who want to win.”
This reply is met with a stony silence, suggesting the journalists expect better from Cross than clichés.
“That was an awkward silence,” he acknowledges, but gamely returns to the topic fully ten minutes later for a second stab at an honest answer.
“Winning is a thing we value very highly as a squad,” he says. “The way we get to winning is by getting our processes right and that’s what we have to focus on – executing that template, rather than ‘we must just win’. Is that enough?”
Yes. It is. Thank you.