Scotland came close to beating France in Paris, and face a Wales side keen on making up for defeat to England. Jamie Lyall examines if Vern Cotter’s young team are capable of greatness
A man who knew a thing or two about winning once said: ‘show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser’.
For longer than most supporters will care to recall, Scotland have played the role of the plucky underdog with aplomb – valiant but futile efforts to tame illustrious domestic, continental and international rivals, interspersed with more than the odd shellacking yielding minor acclaim and perennial disappointment.
It’s a label that perhaps finds resonance with the prevailing view of Scots in general as much as it does the nation’s rugby team.
At Stade de France on Saturday, having fallen short to the tune of a 15-8 defeat, Scotland finished again with that particular saddle still attached, once more a bothersome burden – but under Vern Cotter, its straps are loosening.
The smattering of praise and consolatory caveats that invariably follow these losses are not so vacuous this time around. Scotland were out-powered, but not out-played.
The rueful pouts adorning the faces of players and management in the wake of their autumn defeat to All Blacks spoke volumes of the progress, physically and cerebrally, made by a squad reeling from a desperate 2013-14.
The same is true today: the Scots will be crestfallen. They will appreciate a fine opportunity to taste victory in Paris for the first time in sixteen years, in a match that was there for the taking, slipped from their grasp.
They defended with valour, thwarting the sparkle and thrust of Wesley Fofana and just about bringing Mathieu Bastareaud to a juddering halt whenever the hulking centre took aim at the visitors’ midfield.
Their counterparts, the Glasgow Warriors duo of Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett, emboldened by the confidence their domestic form has generated were threatening, while Stuart Hogg showed flashes of his vision and potency in attack – the trio did not see enough of the ball in areas of the pitch where they could make their talents tell.
Finn Russell too, a fly-half undaunted by neither the magnitude of the occasion nor the weight of history delivered the sort of performance Test rugby will demand of him.
Indeed, the sight of a navy-clad pivot prowling the gain line, exploiting lumbering French forwards and inviting teammates to run lines off him was a most welcome novelty. Again, however, it did not occur often enough.
The why was simple: Scotland could not retain possession, battered into submission at the breakdown by a monstrous French eight spearheaded by captain Thierry Dusautoir, and the exemplary Bernard le Roux.
They shipped penalties, lost field position, and in the second-half, having retreated to the changing room buoyed by Dougie Fife’s well-worked try, found themselves ceding two-thirds of the territory and with it, the lion’s share of the ball.
The frailties of old persist – Cotter’s Scotland are mentally stauncher than those before, they play with greater energy, and a good deal more heart, but naivety and indiscipline are their punishing detractors.
It is a touch unfair to single out the rookie Fife, but his rashness first in fielding a kick on-the-hoof in an impossible position, and subsequent hurling away of the ball in frustration as he floundered inexorably over the touchline was Scotland’s problem in microcosm.
They cannot afford to cough up possession, make poor decisions, infringe with immaturity or compensate for the shoulder-high defensive flapping of Tim Visser when the margins between a top-three placing and another grim battle to avoid the Wooden Spoon are so fine.
That said, Scotland emerged from Saturday’s showing with their pride and try-line intact. Brave losers still, yet the plaudits bear substance, heralding the arrival of Cotter’s new-look brood on the elite scene.
A smarting Wales are next on the agenda at Murrayfield on Sunday, and Scots will rightly fancy their chances. Sure, they are raw, but if there was any lingering doubt this young batch are the real deal, it has been dispelled.
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