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Allan Massie: Johnson must settle on a starting XV

Scott Johnson will not win the Six Nations if he indulges in ceaseless experimenting. Picture: SNS

Scott Johnson will not win the Six Nations if he indulges in ceaseless experimenting. Picture: SNS

  • by ALLAN MASSIE
 

Better, but still not good enough, is a fair judgment, tempered by the recognition that Australia are weaker than South Africa.

Still, this was a match we might have won, even may have come close to winning, though again that view might be modified by the reflection that Australia missed five kicks at goal while we missed only two.

In one sense disappointment is unreasonable. Australia sit several places above Scotland in the IRB rankings. So any neutral would expect them to beat us. Nevertheless home advantage is supposed to even things up a bit – as Ireland so magnificently demonstrated on Sunday.

Moreover, disappointment is sharpened by the evidence of old, long-enduring weaknesses: slow ball at the breakdown, and the inability to score tries from promising positions.

The first might be remedied by the selection of a genuine No 7; the answer to the second problem is much harder to find. It’s not after all only this batch of players who are experiencing a try-famine in the Six Nations and against New Zealand, South Africa, Australia or Argentina. When we won the last Five Nations championship in 1999, we scored 16 tries in the four matches. I doubt if we’ve scored that many in four consecutive Six Nations seasons since.

You could run the rule over the performances of individuals on Saturday and find that nobody had a bad game and that all did particular things of pleasing quality. The set scrum was good, or at least as good as the terrible state of the pitch permitted. The line-out was unreliable – which is sad because it has so often been one of the things we have regularly got right. The fact that young Pat MacArthur, who otherwise had a good game, found the same difficulty in hitting the target as Ross Ford has sometimes done, suggests that this is not always the hooker’s fault– though he is always blamed – but that sometimes the jumper mistimes his leap or is inadequately supported. The back row men all did many fine things without convincing one that the blend was right.

Behind the scrum, Greig Laidlaw started uncertainly, then got better and better. It was a surprise to see him replaced by Chris Cusiter just when he seemed to be exerting an influence on the match. Cusiter played well, as he almost always does, but unless Laidlaw was carrying a knock, the substitution seemed ill-judged.

Duncan Weir handled well, apart from one knock-on of a good pass, but his kicking from hand, usually one of his strengths, was poor: either too long so that the chaser had no chance of putting the waiting recipient under pressure, or too short and high, so that the chasers were standing still waiting for the ball to descend.

Re-starting the second half, he kicked straight to Will Genia, and then did the same thing again three minutes later after Australia’s second try. On each occasion Genia fielded the ball comfortably and had ample time to kick into touch around the half-way line. Aren’t kickers taught to target weaker players at re-starts? Perhaps not: at Twickenham a week ago, the All Blacks kicked straight to the England No 8 Billy Vunipola four times in succession.

Some of Scott Johnson’s remarks after the game were worrying. He talked about preparing a squad for the World Cup in two years’ time. One would have preferred to hear how he was planning to win the Six Nations this season. There is no chance of doing this if he indulges in ceaseless experiment. Nobody – not even France – ever wins the Six Nations without having a settled team.

Clubs can successfully practise rotation because coaches have lots of time with their players. Coaches of any national team don’t enjoy that luxury. They have to back their judgment and stick to it – even when one of their chosen men has a bad game, as even the best players will sometimes have. Ronan O’Gara, for instance, had some pretty poor games for Ireland, but Ireland stuck with him – and benefited from trusting him.

Admittedly injuries intervene. No doubt we might have done better this autumn if Stuart Hogg, Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar, Tim Visser, Tim Swinson and Ross Rennie had all been available throughout – though one may remark that Johnson dropped Visser in South Africa on the summer tour. But the fact is that 32 players took the field for Scotland at some point in these three Autumn Tests. It’s surely time for Johnson to make up his mind as to what is his best starting XV and match-day squad – and stick to it, barring injuries. In particular he should decide between Jackson and Weir at 10, and tell the favoured one that he is not going to be dropped because he makes a few mistakes or has a less than convincing match. Continuity matters because players usually play better when they are accustomed to playing together.

 

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