AT THE risk of coming over all Les Dawson-like, Scotland’s fans will view this season in much the same way as one of the men in the comedian’s extensive joke book would have felt about his mother in law driving over a cliff in his brand new Jaguar... with mixed emotions.
They will be grateful that the Scots managed more than one win for the first time since 2006 but a little less than impressed at how they went about it.
Scott Johnson’s team were dogged, determined, hard working and opportunistic, as well as hopelessly indisciplined and second best in almost every aspect of play in pretty much every game. They won two matches because they defended well (against Italy), they scrambled well (against Ireland) and they grabbed their chances when they came – four well-taken tries against the Azzurri before Greig Laidlaw put the boot into Ireland, not to mention Declan Kidney’s immediate future, to crown that astonishing comeback. Whatever other criticisms are lobbed their way, no one questions this side’s fighting spirit.
Johnson, pictured, was the beneficiary of some good luck in his debut season as Scotland boss and he admitted as much several times. Under Andy Robinson the team generally played quite well in the Six Nations and lost (Wales in 2010, England last year). On the Aussie’s watch the team has played poorly and won two matches. The fans are hungry for any sort of success so they’ll raise a glass and a cheer but Scotland were arguably worse than when they were whitewashed last season, at least until last night’s gutsy performance in Paris.
Good teams concede fewer than ten penalties per match. The Scots coughed up 16 against Ireland and Wales. They lost the turnover battle against Ireland and Wales (the latter by more than 2:1) and the 23 per cent of the match that Scotland played in the Irish half must be some sort of record for a side that then went on to win the game. Last season in Cardiff, the team split the honours with the Grand Slam-winning Welsh – Scotland edged the possession (56 per cent) while Wales had more of the territory (53 per cent). Similarly the Scots bossed the stats against England, winning 61 per cent possession and 56 per cent of territory, only that match was at Murrayfield where you might expect the Scots to hold the whip hand. Not this year. Scotland lost the possession and territory arm wrestle even on home soil, and usually by a margin.
Of course statistics can be famously misleading. They are, and Johnson likes to quote this, like a drunk leaning against a lamp-post, used for support rather than illumination. It’s not how much ball you win, or where on the pitch you win it, it’s what you do with the ball that’s important, stupid! A panel of judges doesn’t decide a rugby match as they do a boxing bout so the scoreboard is the only arbiter of success.
That much is true but rugby remains a physical confrontation and when you are losing that battle on a regular basis, which is what those territory/possession/turnover numbers pretty much prove, it will bite you in the backside sooner or later. You can fight against the tide for a while but Scotland can’t continue to lose all the important physical challenges and still expect to emerge as winners, at least not on a regular basis.
In a pre-tournament interview, England coach Stuart Lancaster cited the great San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh’s biography, The Score Takes Care of Itself. It is Lancaster’s coaching bible and it argues that if you get the culture and the performance right then the winning will take care of itself. This is exactly the argument Johnson employed at the start of this tournament. Don’t fixate on the winning but look to the performance.
Scotland got the performances horribly wrong and still they won a couple of matches and gave a good account of themselves last night against France thanks to spirit and enterprise. Like most Aussies, Johnson tries to be straight with everyone, repeatedly underlining “we have issues with our game” and admitting “some things I think have gone back a peg or two”.
With the exception of the lineout, which was more successful than most, almost every aspect of the Scottish game has gone back a peg or two.
The attack was ruthless against Italy and England, impressive in France but toothless against Wales and Ireland. Scotland stopped Italy playing at the breakdown but just about everyone else stopped Scotland in their tracks at the exact same place. The Scots managed to string a few phases together in attack against Italy but failed against everyone else until they couldn’t manage more than two in succession against Ireland. Only late on against France did we see the Scots actually play some rugby with the ball in hand. How did the team become so poor at such a crucial area of the game and one they used to dominate? Forwards’ coach Dean Ryan identified the problem fast enough. Finding a solution is obviously going to take a lot longer.
The first-up defence was pretty solid against Wales, Italy and France but awful against England and Ireland. The scramble defence was excellent against Ireland, it had to be, but wayward against England, who could have had another four tries if they had been accurate in attack. The scrum was solid against Italy and imperious against Ireland but it struggled at Twickenham and collapsed almost completely against Wales… whatever the reason.
One reason for the overall performance is the shallow pool of talent in Scotland, which has come back to haunt us. When Nick de Luca got injured (and then banned) Scotland had to play Sean Lamont in the No.13 shirt. No one tries harder but he is still a stop-gap measure in a very literal sense. Scotland lost Ross Rennie to injury and couldn’t call upon another in-form seven to take his place so the team was roasted at the breakdown. The stand-off debate has not been advanced and the opportunity to give Tom Heathcote some valuable game time was lost.
After going over Scotland’s games it is difficult to see what the team was trying to achieve with the ball, although that may have had something to do with the fact that the team saw all too little of it. They won scant possession and kicked most of that straight downfield. The lack of ambition and adventure was galling especially with the back three offering the Scots a cutting edge in attack, as they showed to good effect yesterday evening in Paris.
You can sum up the season in three words, spirited but limited. Sorry. I’d like to be more positive but, as Johnson never tires of reminding us, we are where we are and we should not hide from it.
Performance is the goal and winning flows naturally from it. When you get wins before getting the performance it just means you got a smacker on the lips from Lady Luck and while it’s nice to have a bit of good fortune she simply isn’t the marrying type. Scotland need more solid, long-term, sustainable foundations to base their game upon.
There may be good arguments for keeping Johnson in charge of this Scotland squad, not least the fact that he is honest and thoroughly entertaining, but the team’s scratchy performance in this Six Nations championship is not one of them.