DAVID Ferguson asks three former Scotland captains for insight into where national side go from here
SCOTTISH rugby, the past, present and future, is back under the microscope with fiery invective having warmed up another cold week in Scotland.
But what do those who have led Scotland into Five and Six Nations Championships make of it? We introduce this week’s Saturday feature by making it clear from the outset that there will be no discussion of the quality of the pre-match entertainment at Murrayfield nor a call for the head of the Scotland coach after what was an abysmal Calcutta Cup showing.
If you want to join those other bandwagons head elsewhere. This is instead about rugby. There have been real mistakes made and, for us, the jury will remain out until the end of the championship, on whether Scott Johnson does have what it takes to inspire Scotland to improvement in the international stage, and the wider game in his new role as director of rugby.
But, feeling as Scottish rugby has fallen into some perpetual cycle of shouting ‘Hurrah for the new coach’ whilst dismissing the man who went before as some ‘terrible menace’, only to then, two years on, start it again, as if Ian McGeechan, Matt Williams, Frank Hadden, Andy Robinson and Scott Johnson have been the root of all evil in Scotland, there is a need for some clarity of thought.
The fact Murrayfield is sold out for the French game is a sign that many are sticking with the team, led by Kelly Brown, Greig Laidlaw or whoever may be next, and there remains a belief within the squad that they are capable of a significant improvement on the first two performances.
The Scotsman will address the key issues from top to bottom in the game over the next few weeks, as Scotland strive to pick up the pieces following the poor start to the 2014 championship.
We start today, as the Six Nations takes a breather, by asking Scotland captains from three generations what they made of the defeats to Ireland and Scotland, the selection choices, tactics and player performances, and what they expect to see in the next game at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico next weekend.
Peter Brown is the Scotland captain with the best record against England, having beaten the Auld Enemy five times in an international career that spanned a decade. Reflecting on the opening defeats, Brown said that he was “incandescent with fury” in the West Stand at the conclusion of the Calcutta Cup.
“Scotland versus England is the most important game that we play,” he said. “That is the opinion of many Scottish rugby supporters, and it is why I was incandescent at the final whistle. “I don’t know Scott Johnson and I have heard from plenty of people that he is a very hard-working individual, but he has made mistakes and the biggest one for me was leaving out four experienced forwards from the Calcutta Cup, that would have left England quite happy.
“The first, obvious one is Kelly Brown. I understand the logic behind the need for an openside flanker, but we have a very fine one in John Barclay. This was not a game for ‘developing’ a youngster. I know that we have a flawed development system in Scotland and we end up having to develop players in international rugby, but when we play England we must pick a team to trouble them; simple as that.
“Who are the players available to Scotland most likely to do that? I would argue that Kelly Brown, Richie Gray, Alasdair Strokosch and John Barclay are at the top of the list.
“It’s not easy to fit them all into one team, I admit. The disgraceful way Kelly was discarded and the treatment of all those mentioned really upsets me, but having said that I would have Kelly on the bench for the Italy game to challenge Denton and keep him and the rest of the back row on their toes.”
Roy Laidlaw enjoyed a good run of success against England in the 1980s, as the Scottish team entered its most successful period in history, with the last win at Twickenham in 1983, and Grand Slams in 1984 and 1990.
He stated: “It’s not and never has been easy being Scottish because everybody has more than us – more players, more professional teams, more funding and more supporters at all levels.
“It has never been that much different. Ireland were the closest to us when the game turned professional but they are thriving now because they found the money for four professional teams, and that has led to more pro players and more money.
“But they have better foundations too – I was told recently that 93 per cent of schools play rugby in Ulster. We have nothing like that. So, we should know that you can’t throw players away willy-nilly because there are is not a queue of good players to fill the place, so what happened with Kelly Brown was terrible and will not have done the team morale a lot of good. We are not South Africa or England, who can just chop and change.
“We have to build a team and every now and again we get a group of above-average players coming through and we put a few wins together. But you need to get selection right, you need players’ discipline to be on the mark, we need the lineout to function and then you build team spirit and get players working hard for each other.”
The last Five Nations Championship trophy was lifted by another former Jed-Forest scrum-half, Gary Armstrong, in 1999, the early days of professional rugby. He believes a lack of skills caused recent performances.
“Our skills don’t seem to be that better than when we played the game,” he said, “and we’re ten or 15 years further down the track as professionals. I worry that we’re concentrating too much on size and bulk in players, and not enough on basic skills. The English wingers showed terrific quick feet to get through holes and we haven’t seen that from our players.
“It feels as if everybody else around the world has improved leaps and bounds, the Italians and even the Japanese are moving the ball from one side to the other much quicker and better these days, while we struggle. Rugby is a simple game, and we seem to be looking for contact at every opportunity, rather than space, which makes us easy to defend against.
“But, as Roy says, you have to have a really good team spirit and looking at the boys’ body language at the weekend they looked flat to me. I haven’t spoken to any of them but you do wonder about the mood in the dressing room.
“The majority have been playing for a few years and have played better than we’ve seen so far this year, so some aren’t firing on all cylinders. We had a great lineout and suddenly it’s the worst in the championship, and I think we were bullied on Saturday. It was a different era when we played, and it’s maybe wrong to compare, but we knew we weren’t the most skilful team so we had to play with extra passion and desire that made up for that. That can’t win games alone. You have to get the basics right, but we always need that extra edge to have a chance and I didn’t see it on Saturday.
“Is it the coaching? We had a Scottish coach, Jim Telfer, who some people didn’t like, but I thought was brilliant for us; very enthusiastic, been there and done it, and it’s going to be different for Scott Johnson because Scottish rugby’s new to him.
“But Ireland and Wales seem to be able to show the same passion for the jersey, whoever coaches them. England lost it for a while, but that was under Andy Robinson and Martin Johnson, and then Stuart Lancaster came in and got rid of prima donnas.”
For PC Brown, tactical nous is a key concern: “The weather is often a big factor for us, but we seem to have lost the understanding of that,” said PC.
“I learned a lot playing rugby in the Borders, moving to Gala from West of Scotland, and one of the biggest lessons learned was how to play the conditions.
“Playing in a horrible derby with Hawick, Colin Telfer kicked the ball all day, into the air and behind us, and as a forward trying to get ‘front-foot ball’ it was so frustrating.
“That knowledge of how to vary tactics for the weather seems lost, maybe unsurprisingly when the coach has not grown up in the same bad weather we have. Where have the gut-testing high up-and-unders gone? We try to do the drive and pick-up, or ruck feed to the prop standing off in difficult handling conditions against teams better equipped to maul and ruck than us.
“Or we give underdogs the targets they seek to tackle, like in the opening games in the last World Cup in Invercargill where we played into the hands of Romania and Georgia.
“Stuart Hogg, with his much stronger kicking from hand, should be used to line kick penalties to touch. Indeed, the stand-off has a habit of standing square and stabbing the ball. It’s much more effective to turn side-on and ‘cleet’ the ball, and I would like to know why the right-footed restart kicks are taken to the right when the natural right-to-left trajectory carries the ball further away from the advancing forwards. If I was the intended recipient I would insist he kicked off to the left.”
The discussion could go on all night as three players with great rugby brains dissect the first two games, and some further back, with fascinating insight. They will never lose their support for the players following in their footsteps, and all believe the squad to be capable of lifting itself out of the mire, and for Brown it is relatively straightforward: “Bring back the four forwards I’ve spoken about and we’ve got a chance,” he said.
Looking ahead to Rome, Laidlaw said: “We are going to struggle in the scrum, whatever players we choose, so it is so important that we get the lineout right. I agree with PC that Richie Gray should be there – he’s liftable and is a good, big player – and I’d actually put Denton into the second row next week to give us four tall jumpers and a bit more mobility and threat in the pack.
“Scotland have probably played the two best teams in the championship, and Italy are a bit like us, and are playing more rugby so that will mean there are more opportunities for us.
“The team needs to put the first two games behind them, get out there, kick our goals and get the set-piece sorted so that we can get decent ball. I think there is a back division there that can be really dangerous if we get good ball, and I’d think about playing Stuart Hogg at stand-off to get us moving.
“It is a risk but he’s our most potent player and has the skills to play there. He would be a huge threat and so Italy would need to watch him, and if he distributes at the right time it would create space for the outside backs.
“I also like Duncan Weir so I’d be happy if he is picked, but he and Greig [Laidlaw] have to threaten more and hold the defence, to give that split-second to the backs. The boys are focused on getting the game-plan right, but there has to be some individual flair within that.
“Italy are similar in strength to us, it won’t be easy in Rome, but we can compete with them and I think we;ve a great chance of getting a good result in Italy.”
All three men are passionate and concerned in equal measure about the development of Scottish players, or the lack of development on a par with peer nations. Brown wants to see fewer foreign players at Edinburgh, and younger players allowed to develop in the pro teams.
Laidlaw, who worked for the SRU for many years in youth development, wishes the SRU would return to the traditional four-district system, devolving some administrative power to the Borders and Caledonia as well as Edinburgh and Glasgow, with an academy attached and district teams from under-16 to adult, which he believes would drive competition at all levels and development in each area.
Armstrong agrees and urges the SRU to allow Glasgow and Edinburgh to field reserve sides, which both teams wish, which would play in the British and Irish Cup, instead of clubs, and against English reserve sides.
Armstrong added: “International rugby is all about winning – nobody remembers those who come second.
“[Scott] Johnson talks about building a team for the World Cup, but we’re not going to compete for the World Cup title inside a year – we’ve been trying to since we went professional and are further away now than we have been.
“We need to set up a new, professional system to develop the huge number of players going through careers just training, hardly playing, because if I was advising a young talent now I’d say ‘go and play in England’, because the second and third division down there are a better testing ground than our club game or sitting on the bench for Glasgow or Edinburgh every week.
“But, right now, we need to get the best team on the pitch in the Six Nations. I’ve been to Italy with a good team and lost (1998), and Italy are far better now and might have beaten France if they had a goal-kicker, but our boys are capable of turning this around if the coaches get the selection right and the players believe in themselves.”