THERE has been a considerable amount of collective self-criticism within the Scotland camp over the past ten days, and rightly, inescapably so.
The squad and coaches know their performance against England was unacceptable, and they are all too aware of how dejected their supporters were left by that calamitous 20-0 Calcutta Cup defeat.
But, if criticism is to serve a useful purpose, it has to have its limits, both in terms of time and severity. Whether it comes from within the squad or without, it needs to remain rational if it is to have any positive effect. And, once it has served its purpose, it must be put to one side.
That was the message yesterday from head coach Scott Johnson and from his players. The defeat by England remains an indelible blot in the record books, and the shortcomings exposed by Stuart Lancaster’s team must be ironed out as quickly as possible. But the squad believe that one piece of criticism in particular was well wide of the mark – the suggestion from one English newspaper that Scotland, third in last year’s Six Nations Championship, no longer deserve to be included in the tournament.
Richie Gray, back in the team for Saturday’s match in Rome after being omitted from the squad last time out, offered a calm but firm response yesterday when reminded of that suggestion. “We’ve not played well – there’s no hiding that,” he said. “But to go as far as saying we don’t deserve to be part of the Six Nations I think is a bit ridiculous. It’s been very tough. It’s been very scathing stuff. I think to say that is a wee bit too extreme.”
Being left out of the England game may have been a blessing in disguise for the Castres lock, and so could have been the fact that he was unable either to watch the match live or to see a recording. Even so, he was unable to escape all the pain, as he quickly became aware of his team-mates’ mood when he rejoined the camp.
“I was playing at Oyonnax on a very wet evening. We won that one: I came off the bench,” he explained when asked whether he had watched the Calcutta Cup game. “I didn’t manage to catch it due to the clash of kick-offs. I recorded it, but my recording was broken so I didn’t manage to catch it.
“From talking to a few guys and reading a few things it did not go well to say the least. It was not great, but coming back this week you can see the guys are upset. They have not been able to show what they can do on the pitch.
“There is a burning desire this week to go out and play a bit of rugby. We are facing a very difficult Italian side that will be very fired up. It’s a huge game for us. We don’t want to go into our shells – we want to get a bit of ball in hand and start playing. Let’s bring on the weekend. Let’s go out there and play a bit of rugby and show what we can do and not go into our shells too much.”
The fact that Gray was not involved in the last game could be a benefit when it comes to communicating that upbeat message to the rest of the squad, but at the same time he knows he is not just breezing back into camp as if he has never under-achieved himself. When Johnson told him he was being left out of the squad altogether after being used as a second-half substitute in the Ireland game, he also told him areas of his game had to be improved.
“Before I left I had a meeting with Johnno who told me things I had to work on. He asked me to work on my defence, the tackle contest, and also sharpness in the line-out. It was a case of going away and doing it. I went back and had two club games and got back involved. [Being omitted] was hard to take. A day or two days after, you bump your gums, disagree, so on and so forth. Then after, you reflect on it and it is a case of knuckling down.
“I feel for the guys [who played] against England. I can only imagine the frustration of not being able to show what they can do.”
To an extent, Gray also feels for his younger brother, Jonny. Also a lock, Jonny came off the bench for the last ten minutes or so against England – long after the game was lost. In that sense, his exclusion from the Rome trip may seem harsh, but it is one more thing his older sibling will not dwell on.
“It is mixed emotions in a sense. I’m very happy to be back, but, in saying that, I am disappointed for Jonny. He’s done fantastically well this year. I watched him in the Scotland A game [against England Saxons] and he was outstanding and he worked so hard. I am disappointed for him, but that’s just the way it is.”
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