A win against New Zealand today is unlikely, but Scotland have the chance to put an end to their ‘turgid, ineffective game’, writes Iain Morrison.
My, how we laughed a few years back when the Kiwi scribbler Chris Rattue labelled the Welsh: “The village idiots of world rugby”. Ah, we were wiping the tears from our eyes at that one....“village idiots!”
Last week the same man wrote that Scotland’s national team were, “playing a turgid, ineffective game that belongs in a cave because the players have no skills”. Hoy! We have feelings, don’t you know?
We’ll pick apart the insults a little later but the evidence for the prosecution is overwhelming because Scotland haven’t been remotely competitive against the All Blacks in the professional era. Ignore the ancient history for a moment and concentrate on the last three meetings between the two teams which took place in 2007, 2008 and 2010. New Zealand won those three contests at a canter, coasting all the way. They triumphed by an aggregated total of 121-9 (or an average score of 40-3) and every one of those Tests took place at Murrayfield. If those statistics don’t hurt it is only because the Vicodin is finally kicking in.
The Scots are grateful for two draws (1964 & 1983) while the Kiwis are livid that they tied their last game against Australia, a result that prevented them sharing the longest winning streak in international rugby with South Africa who won 17 on the bounce. Actually the record belongs to Lithuania who boast 18 consecutive victories but they are a second (or is it third?) tier nation.
Not only is this New Zealand team good, they are also upset that the Wallabies came between them and history. The images of a bear, a sore head and a stick all spring to mind and the consequences of that combination are never very good.
As for the cavemen jibe, it hurts because it is true, well half true to be exact. In positions where effort, hard work and application are the principal requirements for excellence then the Scots do pretty well and we’re obviously talking here about the forwards. The pack that takes to the field this afternoon will do a decent job of winning their own ball and maybe make a few steals into the bargain. It would fancy its chances of making an impact in the set scrum too if Euan Murray was in harness.
However those positions on the field that require the acquisition of a wide range of highly specialised skills – running, passing, timing, catching, stepping, kicking, anticipating and all the rest, ideally honed under the intense glare of the brightest competitive spotlights – this is where the Scots fall flat. The small player base and lack of intensity, the appalling weather and several decades’ reliance on route-one rugby has meant that Scottish back play has all too often entailed chasing the up-and-under.
It wasn’t always so. As recently as 1990 New Zealand needed five Grant Fox penalties to counter two tries from Scottish wingers, Tony Stanger and Alex Moore, to escape with a three-point win in Auckland.
Moreover Scotland are returning to a more adventurous style of rugby under Andy Robinson, who has always picked a team to attack with the ball in hand even when he has not always boasted the players to put his expansive plan into effective action. Across his starting XV the coach has opted for intelligence and skill over size and strength, from the inclusion of Ross Rennie over David Denton in the third row of the scrum, to Greig Laidlaw at stand-off and the preference for Stuart Hogg’s counter-attacking threat over the hefty boot of Greg Tonks at full-back.
You could argue that Scotland are better off cutting their cloth according to their own strengths, picking a giant pack and a kicking playmaker like Duncan Weir. That may happen come the Rugby World Cup in 2015 but right now Weir is sidelined by injury and if Scotland go down fighting this afternoon, after scoring a couple of tries to talk about, that will be seen as a decent shift – not that the All Blacks concede too many five-pointers.
The visitors have the best defence in world rugby allied to the most dangerous attack. In this year’s southern hemisphere Championship the All Blacks shared possession with the opposition 50/50 but they scored 18 tries and conceded six. After generations of giving second best to the All Blacks, it is difficult seeing Scotland beating them today. To achieve that milestone Scotland need their best players on the pitch and they need their best players at their best. Neither of those conditions is in place. Murray, to name just one, is missing and too many frontline players are short of form or fitness.
Instead Scotland will focus on achieving mini-goals today. The home side will want to get the first points on the scoreboard to sow some doubt in the All Black minds. Defence coach Matt Taylor will focus on keeping the Kiwis try-less for the first quarter because the last meeting between these two teams was over as a contest after 20 minutes. If they manage that the Scots will focus on keeping them out until half-time.
In the Championship the Kiwis scored most of their tries from first phase (eight) or from multi-phase possession (seven) i.e. 11 or more phases. If Scotland can stop New Zealand scoring from the set piece, ensuring everyone knows exactly what they are doing from the scrum and lineout, this All Blacks team takes time to find the tryline, so giving the opposition a chance to win the ball back.
Scotland will take heart from the Wallabies’ last showing when the men in yellow piled into the breakdowns and hounded the Kiwis from the first whistle to the last with an in-your-face aggressive defence. They need to embrace the “cavemen” jibe and use it to good effect, knock a few All Black bodies about.
It’s hard to see Scotland winning today but there is still plenty at stake because the manner in which they lose can offer New Zealand a timely reminder as to why they still visit Murrayfield.