TWO steps forward and one step back. No sooner have Vern Cotter and Co fixed a puncture on the jalopy that is Scottish rugby than its radiator starts steaming or the gear box packs in. No sooner have the Scots stemmed one flood than another part of the dam starts leaking.
You know a coach is in trouble when he resorts to boasting about the improvement in his team’s discipline as Cotter did on Saturday, although he had a point. For the first time in this tournament Scotland played the entire game with 15 men on the field and thank goodness they did. Not only that but the Scots actually won the penalty count this time. (They also won it against Wales but three of the visitors’ penalties that day came in the final ten minutes when they were defending a ten-point lead.) For the first time this year the Scots were in single figures with just eight conceded while they won ten in return.
Geoff Cross and Jonny Gray were the worst offenders on Saturday, both men coughing up two each, but Rob Harley arguably won the award for the dumbest penalty when he took out an English jumper while in the air. Blair Cowan has been a serial offender in the past but the classy seven kept a clean sheet at Twickenham; a sign of progress perhaps but it wasn’t matched everywhere else.
The statistic that jumped off the page was the tackle count because Scotland, who kept their line intact in Paris, somehow missed 26 tackles in 80 minutes at Twickenham. Scotland’s tackle success was down a miserable 81 per cent when teams are looking to achieve around the 90 per cent mark; England managed 89 per cent.
Tackle success doesn’t tell the whole story; the likes of Richie McCaw will usually register high on the missed tackles list but only because he makes so many and never shirks one. The All Black skipper will throw himself at a body if only to slow it sufficiently for the next tackler to stop the ball carrier in his tracks. Still, some of the Scots will not enjoy the match debrief from defence coach Matt Taylor.
Mark Bennett scored and Tommy Seymour came agonisingly close to emulating him but neither man excelled in their defensive duties. The winger made three tackles and missed three for a 50 per cent success rate. The centre was a little better with six tackles made and four missed for a 60 per cent rate. At the other end of the scale Blair Cowan made 13 and missed two while Gray made 11 and didn’t miss his man all day.
Again, the tackle stats can be misleading because defence is not just about making tackles, it is about making decisions. Harley made six from six for a 100 per cent success rate but the blindside might have done better when George Ford scored his try. Harley stayed one wider on his own man who was otherwise unmarked but that close to the line the only thing that matters is stopping the ball carrier. Even if all you do is force an offload, it might go wrong.
Scotland solved the lineout problems, winning every one of their own throws, but conceded penalties at the scrum. They solved the problem of the driving maul that caused all the damage when the Azzurri arrived at Murrayfield but for the second match in succession, the Scots were undone by the bounce of a ball after a penalty. Italy scored a try because no one in blue claimed a penalty kick that rebounded off the crossbar and Saturday’s match was finally put to bed when Ford’s late penalty kick rebounded off the post. Again the Scots failed to secure the ball, Tim Swinson actually knocked it on inadvertently, and England winger Jack Nowell scored the decisive try a few plays later.
The problems of this squad are compounded by the fact that several of them are young and inexperienced. The scrum immediately before Ford was given that penalty opportunity was stable with the ball sitting at the No 8’s feet. An older head than Sam Hidalgo-Clyne might have moved the ball quickly, negating the need for a reset after the scrum eventually collapsed. The clock was against the Scots so why procrastinate?
Of course, Scotland had a more experienced scumhalf on the field but Greig Laidlaw was filling in at flyhalf by this stage. The little Jed man showed the best and worst of himself against England. He was magnificent in the lead up to Bennett’s first-half try but his kicking from hand has been ordinary all tournament and it was little better against England. The odd one was on the money but all too often the scrummy put too much into his box kicks and the English defenders were usually untroubled when the ball returned to earth. No one profited more than Nowell who ran for a massive 161 metres on the day beating seven defenders as he did so. Two steps forward...
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