THE last year has not been a vintage one for Scottish Rugby, with just three wins since January to set against eight losses, during which time the national team has scored 166 points and conceded 248.
While coach Andy Robinson failed to get the best out of certain players, the past 12 months have still witnessed several important breakthroughs.
Hooker and former captain Ross Ford was the biggest casualty of the autumn Test series but there were several others who fell short of their own high standards. Lock Jim Hamilton has been on cracking good form for Gloucester this year, skippering the West County side to their best start for many years but he was unable to translate that form into the Test arena. Instead, he looked a little one-paced about the park, hardly surprising for such a big man and he still has a tendency to concede costly penalties in the wrong areas of the field.
Without his bulk against Tonga on Saturday, the Scotland scrum looked a little unbalanced. Ideally, the forwards are split between ball winners and ball carriers but, in the absence of Hamilton and props Ryan Grant and Allan Jacobsen, who has retired, the pack boasted too few of the latter.
Flanker John Barclay was an early favourite of Robinson but he is another who has gone backwards in the last couple of years, overtaken by Ross Rennie at international level and pressed hard by Chris Fusaro at Glasgow. Scotland needed his excellence at the breakdown. He was amongst the best half dozen in the world not so long ago. If only he could unearth the magic ingredient again. For every set piece there are maybe six or seven breakdowns and Scotland needs someone to show them how to win that particular battle.
Second-row Richie Gray was the standout player in more ways than one against New Zealand but the Tongans showed that, whoever you are, it is difficult to make much headway with someone wrapped around your ankles. If Gray seemed subdued on Saturday it may have something to do with being dropped by his lifters at the first two kick-offs having suffered a knock to the head against South Africa. You expect a clattering from the Tongans but you would hope your own folk would look after you a little better.
Robinson handed Kyle Traynor three caps in his first autumn series and the former Edinburgh prop won another in the 21-15 defeat to Tonga. He performed pretty well but the scrum is not the same force without Grant. Had the Glasgow prop been in harness there is every chance that the Scots would have won a penalty try at the death and come away with another fortuitous victory in Aberdeen. Test rugby is about small margins and, but for Grant’s knock, Robinson might still be in a job.
Grant was the find of 2012 and if the British and Irish Lions squad is chosen on ability rather than accent he has a fighting chance. He is a better scrummager than any of his loosehead rivals, although Wales’ Gethin Jenkins and Ireland’s Cian Healy are handy. While they held up pretty well against England, Lions coach Warren Gatland knows the Wallabies are still vulnerable at the set scrum. He just can’t afford to base an entire game plan around that fact.
Glasgow scrum-half Henry Pyrgos is another find, quick and with a booming boot. But, if you are going to pick a livewire, running No 9, you have to grant them licence to chance their arm and run a quick tap penalties since that is one of the best ways of getting behind a resilient defence like Tonga’s. It looked like Pyrgos was under strict orders to play the percentages.
Another to make a breakthrough in 2012 was Matt Scott, who made his debut off the bench against Ireland. One former British Lion great, a man not naturally given to hyperbole, had the centre pencilled into the Lions Test team, although whether he was referring to 2013 or 2017 is a moot point. Scott is exactly the sort of intelligent and skilful second five eighth that Scotland have been crying out for. He is also not often compromised in defence.
The issue with Scott, as Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley pointed out recently, is that he would not have been pushed into the international arena this early anywhere but Scotland.
The same is true of several others with Tim Visser, Tom Heathcote and Stuart Hogg coming to mind. Scott is young and inexperienced and will make mistakes and there will be times when he has a minimal impact. He also has the talent and physique to become the player that the Scottish backline is built around.
Robinson has at least unearthed several players to take Scotland into the next World Cup. Perhaps the lesson of 2012 is that Scotland needs its best players playing at their best if they are to beat anyone at all.