SCOTLAND’S ability to win games purely on defence, ideally with the rain lashing down, is not part of the current team’s psyche according to captain Kelly Brown.
The Borderer will become the first captain to lead a Scotland side to three consecutive victories in the RBS Six Nations Championship if his team can prevail against Wales at Murrayfield on Saturday and follow up wins over Italy and Ireland.
That fact illustrates Scotland’s inability to compete consistently on the international stage, a trawl of the record books taking us back to Rob Wainwright’s team of 1996 to uncover the last occasion when Scotland did experience three wins on the trot in what was then the Five Nations Championship.
Brown needs no reminder of the paucity of Scottish fortunes in this tournament as he has played through it. He insisted that clutching at the straws of one-off victories against the likes of England and France, and often when, as Dean Ryan, the Scotland forwards coach, stated last month, opponents were brought down to Scotland’s level by the weather, won’t cut it for players who now want to alter that course of history.
Brown said: “We feel as if we’ve made a bit of progress over the last three games and it’s just making sure that we keep on improving. If we can do that I’m sure we can put Wales under pressure but as Johnno [coach Scott Johnson] said it’s not about him and it’s not about me, but about us as a team and a nation.
“We need to take quite a bit from the last two wins because it’s been a long time since we’ve won back-to-back games. At the same time we can’t afford to play as we did against Ireland and win every time. It just won’t happen. I was very very pleased with the win and, yes, we’ve won games like that, but for us it’s about making sure that we’re more consistent.
“We’ve won matches like that but it’s not been back to back to back to back, and that’s the challenge now. To make sure that every time we go out we’re up at 90 or 95 per cent of our max.
“As a player who’s played for quite a few years, I’m aware that it [Scotland’s record] is poor. But, now, that is in the past. We need to look forward. It’s a new squad, a new team and, yes, we’re very happy to win our last two matches but, if we go out there and don’t play well on Saturday, then those two matches essentially count for nothing.”
There are some who believe that Scotland should draw on those one-off victories, that a dogged determination to defend well, strive for parity in the set-piece and kick the ball down the other end of the park can be a recipe for success. Clearly, it has been, and it was put to Brown by one journalist that Scotland might be better playing without the ball and trying to feed off opponents’ mistakes, but the 30-year-old flanker replied that while that had been a recipe for one-off triumphs, what he sought was the finer blended recipe that creates runs of wins.
“To win at the top level you need a really strong defence,” he agreed. “That’s the first thing and that’s the thing that you really need to set in stone. You can build your game around that, and we have worked very hard on that. It’s by no means perfect but we’ve improved since the autumn and we’ll look to keep on improving while, at the same time, also working on our attacking game.
“That [playing without the ball] is one person’s opinion and they’re entitled to that. But we know where we want to go and we’re working as hard as we can to make sure we get there.”
A switch at stand-off does mean Scotland will seek to kick more this week through Duncan Weir to improve their woeful recent territory statistics. The Scots spent most of the Tests against Italy and Ireland in their own half and without the ball and it has been a bizarre championship in terms of stats, with Scotland winning the set-piece battle against Italy and Ireland, with Brown the chief tackler and turnover-winner in the championship, yet spending more of the game chasing their opponents trying to get the ball back.
Brown smiled. “What I think of stats was very eloquently said by my head coach a couple of weeks ago [Johnson said stats were like a bikini, showing a lot but telling you little]. It’s just stats and often they don’t tell the whole story.
“I’m playing alright but I’m my own worst critic and I know that I need to keep on improving as well.
“If you look at modern-day rugby, in the top teams everyone is good at the breakdown and that’s why we have been working really hard at that and making sure everyone knows exactly what they’re doing there. If we do that, we can turn ball over or get the fast ball we need to put teams under pressure.”
The stats do, however, provide evidence of how good a fist the Saracens back row is making of the openside flanker role, and point to where Scotland’s match-winning points have come from.
Openside flanker is renowned as a specialist position, one for supposedly unique men of skill such as Neil Back, Budge Pountney, Phil Waugh and the world’s best Richie McCaw.
Australians David Pocock and Michael Hooper have now taken on the mantle in Super Rugby with their blend of athleticism, pace, strength and ferreting skills in seeking the ball and forcing opponents to give it up.
That will be crucial to Saturday’s outcome at Murrayfield but the performances of Brown, who has played most of his club rugby and 55 Tests either at No 6 (blindside flanker) or No 8, suggest more players can transcend the back row than some think.
Saturday will bring the biggest test of that, when Brown faces Welshman Sam Warburton, who, at 6ft 2in, is two inches shorter, and the kind of aggressive and skilful scrapper used to spending most of his game on the ground.
“There’s no doubt he’s a world-class player,” said the Scot, “and they have a guy on the bench who’s an out-and-out seven [Justin Tipuric], so it’s a really big challenge.
“You could say that, of the first four games, he’s the first out-and-out seven that we’ll have played against but I as an individual playing seven and we as a team want to be tested and you are by playing against the best players, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
As for what Brown expects from a Welsh side which suffered a run of eight straight defeats in the past year, yet head north with wins over Italy and France reviving hopes of catching England – who they play in their final match – in the race for another Six Nations title, Brown said: “I see them as the reigning Grand Slam champions.
“Yes, they lost a few games in the summer and at the tail end of last year but, if you look at those games, they were very, very close. They had a run of bad luck. It’s a side packed with Lions, with world-class players and there’s no doubt that it’s going to be incredibly tough. On top of that they’re going for their fifth away win in a row, so, hey, the challenges don’t come much bigger.
“We’re expecting a tough match but it’s up to us to make sure we go out there and perform as best as we can. We’ve looked at the Ireland game and feel we’ve learned our lessons and it’s about going out there and proving it at the weekend.”
Consistency has always been a Holy Grail for Scottish teams and, if the current side can provide that proof the skipper seeks, they will give themselves an opportunity to turn a corner – with or without the ball and help from the heavens.