ONE of Scotland’s most prolific try-scorers, Alan Tait, believes that no matter the good and the bad of Scotland’s performances in the Six Nations to date, scoring six tries will lift the team on to a new platform of confidence this weekend.
Scotland’s most successful dual-code internationalist, the former centre scored 17 tries in 27 Test matches for his country, and added a crucial score playing on the wing for the British and Irish Lions in the 1997 tour success in South Africa. He played in Scottish back-lines with Bryan Redpath, Gary Armstrong, Gregor Townsend, John Leslie and Glenn Metcalfe, and he believes it was those players’ ability to fashion try-scoring chances and take them, that led to the 1999 Five Nations triumph.
Ireland matches Tait particularly enjoyed. He marked his return to the Scotland jersey in 1997 with a try in a 38-10 victory at Murrayfield that remains the biggest win by either side in the fixture. The Borderer duly scored Scotland’s only try against the Irish the following year, in a 17-16 win at Lansdowne Road, and was a key figure in his final match against them – a 30-13 triumph at Murrayfield in 1999, before he retired later that year. But then the tide turned and he never did crack the Irish egg while with the Scottish coaching team.
“They’re never easy and they’ve enjoyed a good decade, but maybe it’s time it turned again,” said Tait. “As a coach now, you look at little parts of the game where Scotland are improving under Johnson. I studied the England game down and, when you go through it, England played very well. In fact, you look at different elements of their play and they were outstanding at some of the things they did, and I can’t see anyone stopping them in this championship.
“Our guys did their best to stick with them while England were desperate to put the game away, and, for me, the good thing was that Scotland showed that they’re not scared to play rugby. They changed directions, broke up the game, took it off the top of lineouts, and they put away two half-chances at Twickenham and then the boys finished well to get four tries at Murrayfield against Italy.
“The English Premiership is strong, and the defences are very strong, so for us to score two tries down there gave me hope, and then the times they scored against Italy was as pleasing as the tries.
“When you’re a coach and the game is sat at 13-3, in the balance, and you score off a set-piece, which is unusual, it’s a dream. Scotland took advantage of Italy shuffling their stand-off out of the firing line, and when [Matt] Scott took [Sean] Maitland’s pass and broke the line there was no stopping him. I also think Maitland has added a bit. He’s a bit like the good Kiwis we’ve had, Glenn Metcalfe and John Leslie. Every time Maitland gets the ball he looks to play and offload and that rubs off on players. He’s confident with the ball, which comes from the Crusaders and Super Rugby, a good competition for attacking rugby. And with [Tim] Visser and [Stuart] Hogg we’ve got real pace and that is everything at international level.”
Tait also believes that the team is developing a better tactical sense, pointing to the ability of Greig Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson to play the game in the Italian half, but he warned that it will be a more intense test on Sunday. Tait endured some dark days against Ireland in the coaches’ seats and believes Scotland’s defence has to improve for them to secure a second championship win.
“The try Italy scored was pretty soft and the break that led up to Hoggy’s interception was poor because the Italians got through very easily, so there are defensive issues there. The Italy game was a start and it will give them confidence, but I wouldn’t look too much into Italy beating France because the French are all over the place. This weekend is more of a true test of where we are.”
But Tait is in optimistic mood. Having been a surprise choice for the 1997 Lions tour, he is also keeping a keen eye on what Scots might follow him 16 years on. “It comes down to games like this,” he added. “If any of our players are going to get on this tour these are the ones they need to perform in.
“With Warren Gatland the coach, and Wales being Six Nations champions last year, the Welsh will get a few in, and England will flood the tour squad, so these next two games could be our chance to put hands up. And I think our guys have a great chance. They will take confidence from scoring six tries, they know the Irish boys from the RaboDirect PRO12 and won’t be fazed by them, and at the same time the Irish boys will feel they have a lot to prove after defeat to England, so we’re in for an exciting game on Sunday.”