Six Nations: Measured optimism after Scotland loss

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ANYONE who has followed Scotland down the decades has learned to travel fearfully to a venue where they have not won since 1983. Anyone who watched the opening minutes of yesterday’s Calcutta Cup clash must surely have dreaded the sort of beating that Vern Cotter’s team were about to undergo.

Force of circumstance had dictated the head coach’s selection of six forwards and just two backs on the bench as part of his plan to keep the home team at bay for as long as possible and then somehow sneak a win. Force of England came close to blowing that plan apart before five minutes had elapsed.

Laidlaw may have failed to stop England's Jack Nowell scoring but he led by example throughout. Picture: Getty Images

Laidlaw may have failed to stop England's Jack Nowell scoring but he led by example throughout. Picture: Getty Images

But although the hosts did in the end win, and although their 25-13 victory could and should have been by a wider margin, Scotland emerged with far more credit than seemed possible during those traumatic opening stages.

Of course, after a fourth consecutive defeat, it would be wrong to praise Cotter’s team too much, and those November afternoons that promised a new dawn now feel more distant. But given how bad the result might have been, and given the low base from which they are starting, Scotland do deserve some qualified praise for showing character in adversity – and for playing a good deal of enterprising rugby.

Having said that, England played far too loosely, perhaps presuming the game was there for the taking. A defiant Scots defence denied them a couple of scores, but they also squandered several good scoring chances themselves.

It was a game that did not unfold the way Cotter hoped for – or probably the way he had expected. Scotland’s head coach is not given to extravagant game plans, and his selection of a lopsided bench for yesterday’s Calcutta Cup clash, while a calculated risk, was wholly understandable. Assessing his own team’s weaknesses and England’s strengths up front, Cotter decided that throwing everything he had into halting the English pack had to be the foundation of his strategy.

‘Scotland do deserve some qualified praise for showing character in adversity, and for playing a good deal of enterprising rugby’

The risk was all too transparent. With only Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Greig Tonks as backs replacements, a couple of injuries behind the scrum would force Cotter to field forwards such as Johnnie Beattie behind the scrum, leaving him short of firepower in the pack.

But that was presuming the eight chosen to start up front would be able to play their part in thwarting England. The opening minute of the match – in which the home team drove a maul some 20 metres forward then came within a pass of touching down – hinted that would be a tall order. Jonathan Joseph’s fifth-minute try, converted off the inside of a post by George Ford, stated the case a lot more bluntly.

Never mind, we tried to tell ourselves at that early stage. Remember the match in 2000, and the ominous ease with which Lawrence Dallaglio sauntered over the line for the first try back then? And remember how Scotland fought back to win? Granted, that match was at Murrayfield. But you’ve got to have hope, haven’t you? Otherwise you would have given up on Scottish rugby some time ago.

So we hoped that those early setbacks would not put Scotland off their stride too much. Such a hope seemed forlorn at first as Finn Russell was sacked, American-football-style, by Courtney Lawes after taking too much time in goal. But, although guilty at times such as that of trying to play too much rugby too deep, Scotland then began to play some really positive, adventurous stuff in the right sections of the field. And, just as encouragingly for a side who have too often failed to finish off chances, they took their first real opportunity to get a try when Mark Bennett, again one of his team’s brightest and most incisive attackers, scored in the right corner. Greig Laidlaw, who had given the scoring pass to the centre, converted to make it 7-7, and for a while we had a game on our hands.

Parity was preserved for all of two minutes, as Ford knocked over a penalty, but Laidlaw soon made it 10-10. Then, two minutes from the break, the captain scored another three points, and a half that had begun so ominously ended with Scotland in front. What is more, although just before the break Tim Swinson had come on for Jim Hamilton, who had suspected concussion, Hamilton was back for the start of the second half. Tonks came on for Matt Scott, however, which reduced Cotter’s room for tactical manoeuvre with substitutes.

More pertinently, it took England only three minutes to get back in front through a Ford try. The home team had passed up three or four chances to add to the single try they managed in the first half, and they way they started the second showed they were determined to put such profligacy behind them.

Swinson then came on for Hamilton for good, Ford stretched his team’s lead with another penalty, and the match was slipping out of Scotland’s grasp. Cotter rang the changes, bringing on five subs in 15 minutes. As had been the original plan, they shored up the side, but by then that side was chasing the game, their last hopes extinguished by a late try.