EVERY Scottish rugby supporter has had some bad experiences, few quite as dismal and depressing as Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match. It’s one thing to be torn apart by the All Blacks or pummelled by the Springboks, quite another to be made to look so poor by an England XV that never seemed to have to engage top gear.
Our interim coach Scott Johnson talks of Scotland as a new team, finding its way. Yet in the English three-quarter line both wings and one centre are in their first season of Six Nations rugby while in the Scotland pack Ryan Grant and Ross Ford are Lions and Jim Hamilton has won more than 50 caps.
Johnson talked of the game as being “a bad day at the office”. The cliche is common, and there have been too many such days. We were so poor it is hard to know where to begin. So we might as well start with the first kick-off, which was directed straight into the arms of Billy Vunipola, the most powerful runner in the England team. If there is one player in that side you don’t want to give the ball to, it is Vunipola, but this wasn’t the only time we did just that. In contrast, when France kicked off at the Stade de France a week ago, the ball went to England’s new cap, Jack Nowell. He knocked it on, and 30 seconds later France scored a try.
Then consider the Scottish lineout. It was dreadful against Ireland and even worse against England. Often nowadays teams prefer not to kick for touch out of defence, because this usually means surrendering possession, whereas if you kick long down- field you have a chance of regaining possession from a return kick. But England had no reason not to kick for touch, because they had almost a 50-50 chance of winning the line-out. But what should you do if your line-out isn’t working well? Answer, as given by Clive Woodward after the match: you keep it simple, throwing flat to the man at No 2, because it‘s less risky than trying the throw to the tail. The hooker nearly always gets the blame when the lineout goes wrong, but, since there was no improvement when Scott Lawson replaced Ross Ford, there was surely some other reason for its malfunctioning.
There were some wrong decisions on the field, and some odd ones off it. Was there anyone watching who wasn’t bemused by the decision to take David Denton off after some 54 minutes? He had been the most effective Scottish player and showed no sign of being exhausted. Certainly there was a case for bringing Johnnie Beattie on – there is always a case for that – but not surely instead of Denton. He looked less than happy when he marched off, and one couldn’t blame him.
After such a match people always talk about the need for passion and fervour. Fair enough, perhaps, but there was no lack of endeavour and commitment on the part of the Scottish players. In any case, as one recently retired and very experienced international observed to me, you can’t win Test matches these days by such qualities alone. Failure is more likely to be caused by poor organisation and a lack of understanding of where you should be at a particular moment and what you should be doing. If he is right – and I’m sure he is – the conclusion must be that the preparation of the team for Saturday was inadequate. One has seen all the starting XV and the replacements used play very good games, often enough to know that they are talented and capable. Of course any individual can have a bad game, and this may have a knock-on effect. But when a whole team seems as unsure of itself, and of what it is trying to do, as Scotland on Saturday, it’s reasonable to point the finger at the coaches.
Old-fashioned folk (like me) may say that it’s the job of the captain on the field to take a grip and put things right, but, though coaches speak of the need to have more than one leader in a side, their readiness to pull the nominated captain off suggests that they don’t really think his job is that important. I can’t think that captains like Jim Aitken, Colin Deans or David Sole would have responded well to being hauled off at any time, certainly not before a match had been well and truly won.
After the first weekend of the tournament it was a reasonable, if gloomy, prediction that we were heading for another Wooden Spoon. It looks even more reasonable now. Italy may, like us, have lost two matches, but both were away, and in both they have played better, with more conviction and enterprise than we have. They have scored three tries; we have scored none. Their coach, Jacques Brunel, has them playing a well-structured game. They look as if they know what they are doing, and they might well have beaten France but for two moments of brilliance from Wesley Fofana. They looked the better side for much of the match and spent a lot of the second half in the French 22. We spent three per cent in England’s.