OPTIMISM was sparked in many Scots at the start of this RBS Six Nations Championship by the selection of a potent new back three.
But Dean Ryan, the interim forwards coach, laid it out in black and white on the eve of the Italy fixture that Scottish rugby was kidding itself to believe that a back three could be the answer to all the team’s ills. But the way Ryan hugged players at the final whistle on Saturday, after witnessing a record Six Nations win for Scotland, revealed how well the message had hit home.
Greig Laidlaw was given the RBS Man of the Match award, and he had a good game behind a pack which was going forward this time, but Matt Scott was unlucky not to get it. The centre was making only his ninth Test appearance, his first at Murrayfield in the Six Nations, is just 22, and, typically in Scotland with a poor competitive structure through the teens, he has only really been learning the game in his past year of professional and international rugby.
But, while his match-clinching try early in the second half was the highlight, and being denied two others by inches were obvious indicators of his performance, it was the way he brought men down, knocked players off rucks – including giving team-mate Sean Lamont a sore head at one point – and often turned defence into attack that was the telling difference to Scotland’s performance from the week before.
It also marked the match as a coming of age for the former Currie player.
“This past week has been a big learning curve,” Scott admitted. “The coaches have really emphasised the fact that it’s not just down to the back row, the grunters, to do that [breakdown] work. Centres, and every man on the pitch now, have to be able to get in low and make an effective clear-out sometimes on a guy twice your size.
“Last week hammered home the big responsibility there, and we’re slowly but surely coming to terms with that. I don’t think we’re there, but the performance against Italy was a step in the right direction.”
That ruck focus for backs is hardly new. The All Blacks, along with Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy, to name two, perfected the art of pillaging years ago. But, for Scott at least, the arrival of interim coach Scott Johnson has helped sharpen Scotland’s focus.
“I think you know subconsciously that you have to do these things,” said the centre, candidly, “but it’s different when someone takes you aside and says ‘look, here in this situation, you didn’t do this well enough’. You get a mental picture, rather than just the general comments of ‘c’mon, everyone’s got to be better at the breakdown’.
“I found myself against Italy seeing that picture. Johnno [Johnson] has been big on that since he came in and I’ll be the first to admit that my breakdown clear-outs are not up to where they should be. He never fails to remind me of that. So I went out against Italy with a point to prove.”
Scott accepts that it is just one game, and still remembers “the hardest game of his life” at Twickenham the week before. He is acutely aware of the difficulty in maintaining the new standard against Ireland in a fortnight but he will go into that game a more mature, skilled and confident player from the one who first stepped off the bench and into Test rugby a year ago at Lansdowne Road.
“You think, and sometimes people tell you you’re good enough to be here, but it’s not until you have a really good game at this level that you believe that. That was my best game for Scotland and it has definitely given me confidence, to know that I have now delivered under pressure at international level.”
That confidence is vital because only with a solid pack display and an improving midfield axis can Scotland more regularly exploit the rapier back three of Sean Maitland, Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg.
Hogg can see that developing, though, and, if Scott’s try in the 43rd minute put Scotland out of reach at 20-3 up (with Laidlaw’s conversion), the full-back’s interception score five minutes later drove the hosts into the new territory of “easy street”.
Hogg recalled: “There was nobody in front so I thought ‘just go for it’ and was grateful that it came off in the end.
“It was a 14-pointer, seven for or seven against and I was fortunate that it came into my hands. I knew that going for it. If he [Luciano Orquera] had dummied he might have been through but, thankfully, he passed it.
“We also butchered a couple of tries – Matty was unlucky not to get over for a second – but the good thing is that, when we’re making mistakes, we’re understanding what to do next. We’re not going negative, negative but negative into a positive.”
The maturity is clear in the 20-year-old and he added: “Now it’s about turning negatives into positives as individuals and a team, and gaining momentum. Ireland have some of the best players in the world, so it’s going to be tough. The boys will enjoy this victory and keep in the back of the mind the next challenge ahead. I’m looking forward to it.”