SCOTT Johnson spoke again of naivety after Scotland’s numbing defeat to England but, while he spoke about it with reference to the players, the eyes in the media tent all followed the intense glare of the spotlight shining in the coach’s own face.
There is little doubt that a number of players in this Scotland squad have been guilty of naive decisions in the opening losses to Ireland and England. In defence to lose 48 points but also, more worryingly perhaps, in an attack that has yielded just six points – two Greig Laidlaw penalties in Dublin.
That kind of return will threaten no-one at international level, and while Johnson strived to insist again at the weekend that such naive play was a reflection of this Scotland squad’s development status, there was a hint of naivety in that statement itself. It is fair to look at some of Duncan Weir’s wasteful kicks and talk about his lack of game time and experience of managing games as being contributory factors, or to analyse Alex Dunbar in his first Six Nations and question aspects of play here and there. But these players did not cost Scotland the games in the Aviva or Murrayfield stadiums.
The Scottish front row of Ryan Grant, Ross Ford – both deservedly British and Irish Lions players – and Moray Low have great experience. In the second row, Tim Swinson is new to it with five Tests under his belt now, but he’s hardly a kid at 26, while Jim Hamilton is 31 and has 52 caps. And yet that tight five have been outshone by their rivals in the opening two games and coughed up so much possession as to rank this season’s set-piece as one of the worst in recent memory.
Across the pitch on Saturday the team looked shapeless, directionless and lacking in any clear idea of what sort of game they were trying to play. An impressive England side had a mighty hand in that, of course, and Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, again showed his tactical awareness to easily blunt Scotland’s strengths. Johnson, however, seemed to have no Plan B and, afterwards, repeated his message of having patience with and tolerance of a new squad developing. He said: “Look, they know where they are. They are feeling it. They let themselves down and I take responsibility for that. I don’t hide from that. You question yourself all the time. That is your job. We kicked a bit because we wanted to turn them, with 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, and sometimes a combination of the two. But we weren’t playing the game on our terms and, as our set-piece came under pressure, we tried to kick in positions we shouldn’t.
“Then we’d follow up a poor kick with a poor chase and repeat and repeat until you lose. The plan was fine, the execution wasn’t great.”
Again, as stated in these columns last week, there are clear reasons why our kicks are poor, why handling is not up to the Test standard of other nations and why game management and plain rugby nous is lacking. It comes back to poor development of players from the ages of 17-20 in Scotland, and a lack of exposure to weekly games of high-intensity rugby. However, at full Test level, Scotland have performed better than we have witnessed this year to date. Most of this front five, for example, have competed well against the likes of England, France, Australia, Wales and Ireland in recent years, dominating lineout and scrum on occasions. So, while accepting the consistency of champions is missing, we have to question what Johnson and Jon Humphreys are doing with them.
New Zealander Vern Cotter will take over at the end of the French season, but it would be a dereliction of duty to simply write off the games until then. So, for the sake of player confidence and public faith in the Scotland team – and indeed in the coach as he assumes the SRU’s director of rugby role – Johnson has to come up with a more effective plan for the three remaining games. One fears he thinks differently.
“Look, I could have taken the really easy option and just tried to get a competitive side that could see us through,” he said. “I don’t just want to do that. I want Scotland to have a really good international team. I am prepared to take what I feel are the kids that can take us on that ride. It is about winning. I look at our ten, 12, 13 midfield positions and I know there is imperfection there, but I also know that they are talented, can learn and, if they get a foundation to play off, can be as good as anyone. So I am going to stick with that.”
So, no changes for Italy, next up in 12 days, and no swift return for skipper Kelly Brown? “I am not going to make massive changes,” he said. “If it needs to be tinkered with I will tinker. I could keep going back and retrace my steps but I am trying to be fair. I am trying to show some growth in the team. If someone has to miss out because of that, so be it. We will be honest with our assessment. If we learn to punish sides and turn the ball straight away you will see quick improvement. They are gifted enough with a bit of front foot stuff that it may come quicker than we all think. It may not be as quickly as you guys [the media] want it to be but we will get there.”
Traits that Scots have a good store of are patience and blind hope, but even these need to be nurtured by a dose of positivity from time to time.