Scotland’s recent Six Nations form has been wretchedm, says Iain Morrison. Surely this can’t be as good as it gets?
THE occasional successes on summer tours and in autumn internationals have perhaps blinded us to the true state of play at the top of Scottish rugby. You have to go as far back as 2006, Frank Hadden’s first season in charge, to find a campaign in which Scotland won more than one match in the Six Nations.
It is the shop window of Northern Hemisphere rugby, the day job, the nine-to-five because every other international – barring the World Cup, of course – is a “friendly” by comparison, even if IRB ranking points are up for grabs. Scotland have not just been bad, they have been wretched. In the last six seasons the Scots have earned exactly five championship wins. They have not beaten two teams in one season. Over that period the record reads: played 30, won five, drawn one, lost 24.
In Six Nations matches in the last six years Scotland have beaten England once (and drawn with them once), beaten Wales and Ireland once and beaten Italy twice. Italy have beaten Scotland in four of the last six championship outings. What have the Azzurri to fear at Murrayfield? The most successful season was 2010 when Scotland drew with England and beat Ireland in the last match at Croke Park. In every other year the team have either won one match or none at all.
You could argue that the game here took the best part of a decade to get to grips with turning professional so you have to wonder, to borrow from Jack Nicholson, if this is as good as it gets in the properly professional era?
This Scotland team won’t go into the tournament empty handed. It will field a giant forward pack on Saturday but arguably only at the expense of abandoning Scotland’s traditional high tempo game. It’s anathema to most Scots but it’s difficult to point the finger at new interim coach Scott Johnson, who can only play the cards he has been dealt.
The outlook is a little bleak, although that statement won’t win any awards for original thinking. Maybe it’s the climate but Scotland does not seem to grow ball players like Wales, players who instinctively and intuitively take good options under pressure – except, of course, it has nothing to do with instinct and intuition. Those skills are honed in high-intensity training and matches which is exactly what young Scottish players lack. Wales have enjoyed three Grand Slams in the last eight seasons, Scotland have enjoyed three Grand Slams in the whole history of the competition. It isn’t a coincidence. As Johnson says with admirable understatement in his interview inside this Six Nations guide, Scotland might not have got the structure and processes of professional rugby quite right just yet.
But the Six Nations has a habit of shredding predictions and that includes writing Scotland off. Wales have lost a host of players to injury and lost their coach to the Lions. England have an All Blacks scalp and the admirably grounded Stuart Lancaster. Ireland have good form and Johnny Sexton pulling the strings, Italy have more than we sometimes credit and France have it all. So what of Scotland?
This Scotland squad is big, strong and athletic so the first thing the players can do is become hard to beat. That is the sine qua non of any serious Test team and, like a drunk on a recovery programme, Scotland need to go right back to the basics and start with baby steps. The set piece needs to function without drama, and that includes the restarts please. Everyone, backs and forwards alike, needs to watch what the Irish do at the breakdown and copy them because they will do anything and everything required to stop the game flowing when the opposition have the ball. They have even been known to bend the laws of the game.
It doesn’t happen too often, so Scotland must take points when they are on offer. If the opposition get their noses in front Scotland must be patient and resist the temptation to chase the game. If Scotland take the lead they must be patient and build on it, keep the foot pressed firmly on the opposition’s throat, don’t concede stupid penalties and don’t give any easy outs. In fact, as a good rule of thumb, don’t give the opposition an easy anything.
It sounds contrary advice but Scotland must play in the right areas of the field and, at the same time, be willing to attack from anywhere as and when the opportunity arises. This squad has several world class finishers. Oh, and everyone has to make their tackles. The completion number against New Zealand was 77 per cent. It needs to be above 90 per cent for Scotland to beat anyone.
If Scotland do all of the above and maybe, just maybe, get a little luck into the bargain, the team could win a couple of matches and, whatever the final result, the players absolutely must lay down a marker at Twickenham. It is within their power, and no one else’s, to right the wrongs. Only the players have a shot at redemption and the chance to regain some pride for Scottish rugby.
Another season of abject failure and we may be forced to conclude: this really is as good as it gets.