A FIRST-MATCH shellacking has become almost a tradition for Scotland in the RBS Six Nations Championship and, with the buzz word in these tournaments being “momentum”, the team again finds itself looking for a spark to pick up swiftly in the second week.
But Scott Johnson, the interim head coach, had made it clear that he is not about to re-cast his team in an effort to ignite a winning performance, but instead rely on the men who suffered a 38-18 defeat at Twickenham on Saturday to learn from their errors and find a way to turn it around themselves.
He will be forced into changes with Alasdair Strokosch, the blindside flanker, having been forced off with a fracture around his eye after just 13 unlucky minutes of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match. Hooker Dougie Hall also took a massive thump to his leg and, though he strived to play on, was eventually forced to succumb to severe knee pain. He, along with David Denton (knee) and Johnnie Beattie (ankle), are all to be assessed further today before determining who is fit enough to be named tomorrow in the side to face Italy this weekend.
“All players we’ll think about,” Johnson said, “and we could chop and change, but what I feel is that I want to drive a direction for Scotland whether I’m here or not. So I want to be clear that we’re trying to search for answers.
“It’s so easy to be critical of an individual, but it’s about belief and you have got to give a kid a go. I’m not one who’s going to make a swathe of changes. I’m trying to develop a team and an ethic, and the only way that you can do that is to acknowledge where you are and get on with it. The fact is, if we keep chopping and changing, we won’t get to the end and I don’t want to go down that path.
“There are obvious cases where we may look at it, but I don’t want to go down searching for something that’s not there. We have to work with what we’ve got.
“We’re not far away, but selection is such a subjective view. Who’s to say the boys we might be talking about now are any different? We’ve looked long and hard at this and it doesn’t mean everyone is guaranteed spots, but the fact is that if you want to improve you have got to keep the people in work.
“We could over-analyse this, or just say ‘let’s have another crack’. That may change when we look at the tapes, because some people might not have done enough to deserve the right to be there, but the intention is to try and have a longer view of this for Scotland. There are no guarantees in life but sometimes backing people brings a good result, if you’re true to them.”
Changes, enforced or otherwise, may not weaken the side. Denton replaced Strokosch on Saturday and, for all that he had a couple of howlers, the youngster is one of the talented players around whom one imagines this squad will develop in coming years. So is Robert Harley, who was just outside the matchday 23 at the weekend, but now seems likely to at least return to the bench for the Italy match, depending on the fitness of the injured back rows.
In the front row, Ross Ford is an obvious replacement for Hall, if the Glasgow hooker’s luck runs out so swiftly after his return to the side, but with the Edinburgh man hopefully energised by a rare stint on the bench and ready to prove why he should not return there.
Elsewhere, big forwards Jim Hamilton and Euan Murray, in particular, did not bring the scrum dominance hoped for – though this is not a two-man effort – and lacked punch around the park, while Ruaridh Jackson continued his development as a stand-off with another mixed display. Much of the less flashy work, where he put in big tackles and marshalled the line well, was overshadowed by the highly visible poor kicks and times when the back line did not come up to the mark in defence or attack. But he was behind a beaten pack as opposed to Owen Farrell, who enjoyed a great day on the front foot. How Jackson must have envied his opposite number.
Johnson admitted he found it tough sitting in the Twickenham stands for the first time as Scotland’s chief coach, frustrated at how the game-plan worked on for the past two weeks struggled to have any effect due largely to Scottish failings. He felt for the players, he said, the work they had put in and the effort they showed, to come off having to beat themselves for how they had still contributed to their own downfall.
“They’re trying their bollocks off, you’re thinking ‘jeez, there’s a hard maker up there’, which tells you that to get the right result you may just have to do it smarter and harder.
“Look, the reality is that all we can do is look to improve, little steps each week, and that’s what we intend to do. But we will be very honest. We will be repeating ourselves [about the importance of the tackle contest]. It happens 140 times in the game on average, with or without the ball, and is an essential building block of the game and what the game is about, and we were poor.
“I thought we were in dominant positions sometimes, and there are moments where we do it really well, but it’s just not constant enough. So in an event that happens 140 times then probably call that 20 or 30 per cent of the time that we’ve done it well, so there’s a lot of improving needed.
“We’ve got potency. I said it during the week. We have potency in some lads that others would die for, but we can’t kid ourselves. We have to look in the mirror and accept what it says about us.
“We’d love them to get the ball and take positive steps, but it comes from the base of how we win the collisions.”
Asked whether he felt the pressure beginning to grow after just one game because the next game was against the perceived weakest team in the championship at home, he said he felt that the opposition was almost irrelevant.
“There’s no extra pressure for me and I certainly hope it’s not for these lads. The reality is that the world order has changed and Italy are not the easy-beats anymore.
“They are a formidable side, a very good rugby side, and that will be a tough rugby game. We’re not deluding ourselves with that. We know what we’re up against and we will give credit to them, but the fact is we’ve got to look at ourselves.
“We can pretend that it’s a thousand things, but the mirror tells us that we have to get that [tackle area] part right.”
There is nothing surer, as that is an area of the game the Italians have long been masters at turning into an almighty mess. Win that and provide slicker ball to their backs, and particularly the eager and pacy back three, and Scotland could become a far more effective side, but struggle again and they will face another hugely frustrating 80 minutes. No-one knows that better than Johnson.