THOUGH I suspect that the French are right in believing, as they have for a long time, that a team’s General should be the scrum-half, as indeed Greig Laidlaw is in the present Scotland XV, it remains the case that throughout the four Lions countries far more attention is paid to the choice of fly-half. There’s no sign of this changing.
Numerous posts on Scottish rugby websites are devoted to argument about the respective merits of Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir, with some throwing in the name of Tom Heathcote too. Weir’s brief 20- minute spell against Ireland has quickened the debate, since he seemed to do more, and do what he did better, than Jackson who was on the field three times as long. He had admittedly the advantage of coming on when the Scottish forwards were at last getting on top, but he did two or three things conspicuously well. That said, this wasn’t a match which provided much evidence to advance the argument. Jackson and Weir between them handled the ball only 12 or 13 times. A fly-half can normally expect to have the ball in his hands three or four times as often.
The fly-half is of course important, and how he plays may decide the outcome of a match. Ireland would probably have beaten us if Jonny Sexton had been fit. For one thing, he might have kicked the goals that Paddy Jackson missed; for another he would surely have dissuaded his captain Jamie Heaslip from kicking for the corner when awarded penalties in the Scottish 22. Heaslip’s foolish decision may well have cost Ireland the match; the penalties he declined to have Jackson kick for goal were much easier than the ones he asked him to kick, which the young Ulsterman missed. Actually , apart from his three missed kicks, none of which was easy, and the knocking-on of the first, rather bad, pass he received, Jackson played pretty well, certainly better than Ronan O’Gara did when he took over. It is always sad to see a player who has been very good in such sharp decline as O’Gara now.
Stuart Lancaster seems to have settled on Owen Farrell as his first-choice No 10, though I suspect he may not be risked against Italy even if he has apparently fully recovered from the injury he sustained a week ago. He is a neat player and , along with Leigh Halfpenny , the best goal kicker in the Six Nations. (I put them ahead of Laidlaw only because both can kick goals from beyond his range.)
Farrell may not offer as much in attack as Toby Flood, just as the present Welsh first-choice, Dan Biggar, offers less than James Hook, but Farrell and Biggar are both better at controlling a match than their rivals.
Stuart Lancaster should, however, be worried about one feature of Farrell’s game. In the last two matches he has been lucky to escape sin-binning. He should have been off against Ireland for his shirt-tug on Conor Murray, and off against France for his nasty elbow jab into Morgan Parra’s face. I am sure he’s a nice lad off the field, but on it he is too often petulant and sneaky.
With two weekends to go it looks as if England are the probable champions because they are likely to beat Italy at Twickenham by a big enough margin to ensure they will win the title on points for-and-against difference even if they lose to Wales in Cardiff. Italy have never done themselves justice at Twickenham, and in the absence of Sergio Parisse it’s hard to see them even running England close. Nevertheless, well though they have played, England have scored only one try in their two matches since the Calcutta Cup. This is not the stuff of Grand Slams. In Dublin they didn’t even seem to be interested in scoring tries, content to let young Farrell kick them to victory.
It was much the same against France, and their only try then should have been disallowed , with a scrum given to France for accidental offside. They may well do better against Italy, but what about Cardiff? Wales haven’t conceded a try since early in the second half of their first match of the tournament against Ireland, almost two hundred minutes of rugby. Of course we in Scotland hope that the Welsh defensive record will have been dented by the time they welcome England to Cardiff.
As to our No 10 question, Scott Johnson’s decision to release Weir to play for Glasgow last night suggests that Ruaridh Jackson will start against Wales. Dropping him would be illogical in view of how little opportunity he had last Sunday and how well he played against Italy. The rivalry is set to run and run. Happily, each declares that the other is his friend.
Meanwhile, one hopes that the SRU will contrive to lure our third-ranking fly-half Tom Heathcote to join Edinburgh next season. Given that his club, Bath, have just signed young George Ford, whom some think better than Farrell, Heathcote may not be averse to a move north.