I TEND to think of myself as a positive person, but what a difference it makes sitting down to write about a game when Scotland have fallen on the right side of a close-run thing.
The scrum may not have been great, but Scotland’s lineout was hugely improved and so we saw the back division, finally, showing us all what it is capable of with good, quick ball on the front foot. Having played with most of these guys, I knew they had that, and I believe there is yet more to come, but I also know only too well that it can be extremely frustrating trying to ensure it comes out.
The head coach will have a number of intriguing selection dilemmas in the next week or so, for positive reasons this time. I was delighted for Scott Lawson who reminded everyone of how good a player he is.
I’ve seen it all before – and expected it – having played with him at club and international level but he’s had to be patient and would have put huge pressure on himself to perform. The lineout was 100 per cent bang on and while that is not all down to the wee man, just as I said on Saturday that the misfires were not all down to Ross Ford, I would imagine the coaches will be keen to reward Lawson with another start.
The second row, similarly, are a terrific combination and have been since Richie Gray first came on the Test scene four years ago, so I don’t expect changes there either. But the back row is a different matter.
We know that Scott Johnson likes the idea of a big, powerful trio and finished the game in Italy with the combination of Ryan Wilson at openside flanker, David Denton at No 8 and Johnnie Beattie at blindside, a combo he likes. The Springboks operate with a gargantuan back row and it can certainly be effective, so while Chris Fusaro has played well, I wonder whether he might think about returning to the unit he has favoured in the past.
And then we come to the half-backs. My old sparring partner Chris Cusiter made a key impact in the game, bringing tempo to the last quarter with his fresh legs.
Having come off the bench for Scotland at that stage in key games, I know that the temptation is often to complicate things and try to force plays in an attempt to make that crucial difference, especially when you are behind. Cusiter showed his experience by keeping things simple and getting the basics right to allow those around him to take the game to Italy, as a good scrum-half should.
His hand in the second try from first phase was crucial. With a number of ball-carriers running off Duncan Weir, Cusiter worked really hard from ruck to ruck with the focus of getting the ball up and away and into the first receiver’s hands quickly, whether that was Duncan or someone else. It was good, incidentally, to see Stuart Hogg coming in to take the ball at first or second receiver as Scotland’s most dangerous running threat and as an alternative distributor.
Scotland won more of the collisions and managed to get some good speed of ball on Saturday, particularly as the Italians tired. There is no doubt that a quicker service from nine allowed our key carriers more time on the ball as we stepped up the momentum in that last quarter.
Greig Laidlaw is a fantastic player and I have nothing but admiration for the way he has developed into an outstanding internationalist. The kind of character he is, he will have taken a lot on his shoulders in recent weeks with the team struggling to find their rhythm and because, of course, he is the captain now. With Duncan outside him lacking a bit of experience a scrum-half has to take on more of the decisions as he helps the younger player develop and understand what’s going on and where. At times I do worry that having to juggle multiple responsibilities can, on a few occasions, compromise Greig’s service as he waits for the runners or to make the decision.
I would love to be a fly on the wall at selection prior to France. He’s split opinions so far, but Johnson has shown during this tournament that he won’t shy away from big calls. In the wake of dropping Kelly Brown, would he consider leaving Greig out and handing Cus the armband, given his knowledge of the French? I’ve been there as Scotland captain and lost my place because the competition at scrum-half is ridiculously fierce. We will see.
One win doesn’t mean we are suddenly there, turned the corner, because we have a history of pulling off good, solitary results. But at the same time there can’t have been many results in recent history more important to Scottish rugby than that.
There have been a few critics of the ‘lap of honour’ the squad did at the end of the game, suggesting it was over the top. I loved it. These guys have been questioned in recent weeks and yesterday, though it wasn’t perfect, they provided the answers. There was definitely a release of emotion and relief of winning, and it is important to savour that feeling. We cannot begrudge the boys that can we? It should also be noted that the players appreciate the support who have stuck by them. Rome is a magnificent tourist destination but the travelling support who were strong in voice all afternoon had a massive part to play yesterday, and the players wanted to show their thanks.
I loved the end-on shot on the BBC as ice-cool Dunc slotted the drop-goal and the boys celebrated. Ryan Wilson, his hands on his face, Jim Hamilton galloping back to halfway with hands pointing to the heavens and sheer elation across the faces of every Scotsman. Being a Scotland player must have been tough in the last few weeks, a lot of work for not a lot of reward, so that result has provided such a lift of pressure after recently being hammered by the media and public.
The players and coaches deserve their praise with the fresh challenge now to back up the performance next time out.