SCOTTISH supporters of a certain vintage have heard it all before. Former coaches have always had a pre-packaged spiel ready for dismayed hacks and furious fans.
Matt Williams talked a great game about blooding young players, Ian McGeechan talked about building for the future, Frank Hadden wittered on endlessly about the inevitability of improved performance leading to improved results.
Scott Johnson has a disarming line of patter, and is often much more candid than his predecessors. But it was left to the captain, a dejected Greig Laidlaw, to explain away this one-sided Calcutta Cup defeat. He didn’t pull his punches either.
This, he said, wasn’t a case of the one that got away. “No-one goes out to have that happen to them, believe me,” he said. “But the truth is that we struggled in the set-piece which was there for everyone to see unfortunately. We got 30 per cent of possession and we were lucky to get that. It’s just a good job we showed a lot of resolve or the size of the defeat could have been far worse.”
That assessment was so spot on that the assembled media throng clearly decided that there was no point holding the scrum-half’s feet to the fire for a performance devoid of quality or cause for hope. Instead, it was left to Johnson to explain quite how Scotland were so comprehensively outmuscled and outclassed on their own patch.
“I’m extremely frustrated,” he said, starting with a statement of the bleeding obvious. “I’ve got a crick in my neck from looking at one end of the field for the entire second half. We were under so much pressure because we were getting no ball. They had 20 set-pieces in our 22 to our one in theirs. The sheer weight of that tells you that you are going to miss some tackles, you just are.”
Fair enough, but if Scotland were winning so little ball, why were the half-backs under instructions to kick away hard-won possession?
“We wanted to turn them a little bit,” explained Johnson. “We had a clear objective that we didn’t want to have a lot of lineouts in our half but, as it turned out, they had 16 in our 22 so the strategy didn’t work. Sometimes our kick was poor, sometimes it was the chase, sometimes it was a combination of the two. We weren’t playing the game on our terms and, as our set-piece came under pressure, we tried to kick in positions where we shouldn’t. Then we’d follow up a poor kick with a poor chase and repeat until you lose. The plan was fine, the execution wasn’t great.”
Given that Johnson has gone out of his way to expand the stock of young Scottish internationalists, his constant refrain about Scotland’s “naivety” is mildly puzzling.
“Today we fell into England’s strengths,” he said. “But we have some naivety in this side. I’ve gone down the road of selecting younger players who haven’t played much Test rugby before, but we still have plenty of strike force, these are just guys who haven’t played much Test rugby before and aren’t getting the possession to play off.
“Our ten, 12 and 13 are pretty inexperienced, as are players like Hoggy. In fact only Sean [Lamont] in the back division is experienced, but, while there’s naivety, there’s athleticism too. I’ve always known that, if you pick kids, then it’s going to be tough but I genuinely think these guys are part of Scotland’s solution, I really do. It’d be easy to pick the same old campaigners but we need to start bringing these kids through, because time in the saddle is crucial.
“We’ve got a good back division but we’ve got some naivete in the pack and that will cause immense frustration for me, for the players, for the crowd – I get it, I understand that. This side is far from perfect, I understand that, but it’s got to be better than retracing our steps. I’m trying to build for something. I want a team that when [new Scotland coach] Vern [Cotter] takes over in the summer there’s enough maturity and strength and athleticism around this squad that we can compete with anyone.”
In the meantime, there’s little else to sustain a crowd that was horribly muted long before the end of the 80 minutes yesterday. At least Johnson didn’t insult anyone’s intelligence by promising jam tomorrow, preferring instead to laud his young charges for their doggedness under pressure. Asked to draw a positive from yesterday’s encounter, the best he could muster was that it could have been worse.
“There was a bit of character out there today,” he said. “When you’ve got 20 set-pieces in your own 22 against a formidable opposition that drives really well, you’re always going to be under the cosh. In many ways the scoreboard flattered us – we really held on. Trust me, there’s resolution in this group – they may be naive, sometimes their skills puts them under pressure, but I think the majority of them can provide them with a really competitive national team against anyone.”
Ah, sorry, That was definitely a bit of jam tomorrow. Not that anyone’s holding their breath on the back of yesterday’s showing. Two games into the Six Nations Championship and already all our hopes rest on the arrival of big Vern.