Allan Massie: Scots have good platform to build on
AT CLOSE of play in Paris Lawrence Dallaglio said it was clear that Wales and England were the two best teams, well ahead of the rest.
The final table might support his opinion, but the thumping Wales gave England suggests otherwise. They beat England far more comprehensively than they beat anyone else. As I said on Saturday morning, the English performance has got worse with every match; they were fortunate to beat Italy and in Cardiff they were dire. After the game it was hard to believe that anyone had thought it would be close, let alone envisaged an English victory.
What then of Scotland? We lost in Paris as we usually do and were beaten by a French side that only occasionally sparkled. The final score was a fair reflection of the match, and perhaps the chief disappointment was that we played with adventure and ambition only after the game was in effect lost. Still, Jim Hamilton’s assessment seems fair: we have had a half-decent tournament. Hamilton’s own one was more than half-decent. He has become as important to Scotland as Nathan Hines was for so many years.
The defence has been much improved – at least since the Calcutta Cup game. Conceding five tries in four matches is about par for the course, though one should add the qualification that this was a tournament in which defences were on top. There was no free-scoring team. The wretched weather in which the majority of games were played doubtless contributed to the shortage of tries, but lack of enterprise, lack of vision, and inadequate basic skills were other reasons.
In Paris, as in earlier games, Greig Laidlaw kicked very astutely from the base of the scrum. One did wonder however if he overdid it, and might have been readier to make use of the men outside him. There is more skill and penetration in this Scottish back division than whoever devises our game-plan seems to think. Much has been said, rightly, about the attacking flair shown by the back three, but Matt Scott has been one of the few centres in the tournament to make clean breaks. Jamie Roberts had a storming game on Saturday, but, apart from that, Scott has been as good a 12 as anyone except Wesley Fofana.
Well though Kelly Brown has played, we have missed having an out-and-out No 7. We might have had a more successful tournament if Ross Rennie had been fit, but every country has been without some important players, none more so than Ireland whose injury count has been horrendous.
We lost the game in Paris in the first ten minutes of the second half. That was the time to put real pressure on a French side clearly lacking in confidence. But we didn’t assert ourselves then, and France were able to begin to dominate. Once they had got ahead thanks to a succession of short-range penalties, they started to play with freedom and the match slipped away from us. The rally after Ruaridh Jackson and Henry Pyrgos took over at half-back and showed a readiness to run the ball came far too late.
Norman Mair used to remark in these columns that New Zealanders – and rugby league players – handle better because they handle more. Perhaps we make handling errors because we don’t trust ourselves to handle often enough. Some of the handling mistakes in Paris, notably by Stuart Hogg and Johnnie Beattie, would have attracted well-deserved criticism from a youth club coach, even allowing for the filthy weather in which the game started. Yet Hogg and Beattie have been two of our best players. In contrast Leigh Halfpenny hasn’t failed to take a high kick all season. This is one reason why Wales are champions and we are among the also-rans.
Critics are often intemperate, and when a team loses it is easy to deliver harsh judgments. Yet there haven’t really been any obvious individual failures. Everybody who had played in the tournament has had some excellent moments, everybody has contributed something. There is no call for heads to roll, and it is likely that all these players will still be challenging for a place next season and most will play many more times for Scotland. Sean Lamont may be approaching the end of his international career, and he may not be a natural centre, but he has had a very good tournament. I don’t know the statistics but it would surprise me if he hasn’t made more tackles than any other back, except, possibly, Sean Maitland.
“A half-decent season” may not be an inspiring conclusion, but it is a fair one. The team did well to recover from the heavy defeat at Twickenham. After that it was won two, lost two, and both defeats were close enough for there to have been spells when victory seemed possible. In any case it’s no disgrace to lose to the eventual champions and it’s never a disgrace to lose in Paris so long as you have been in the match for most of the 80 minutes. Realistically we should say there is something to build on, and it would seem sensible for the SRU to abandon any idea of an expensive world-wide search for a new chief coach, and instead to confirm Scott Johnson in the job – for next season at least.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
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Wind direction: North west