David Ferguson: Infuriating lack of tries still proving Scotland’s curse
THERE is no escaping the tide of déjà vu that engulfed Scottish rugby at the weekend, but it is of no use to the sport, the players nor coaches to submit to it.
There has to be improvement and, more precisely, tries when Scotland take on Wales in Cardiff if the game is to retain the optimism generated by the new SRU leadership, and Edinburgh’s Heineken Cup and Glasgow’s league drives are to signal a corner turned. Otherwise, with France to come to Murrayfield and then Ireland away Andy Robinson’s side could be heading to Italy for another wooden spoon decider and the peg holding his coat wobbling.
So, after four tryless games in a row, where do Scottish five-pointers come from? Tactics and coaching help to hide weaknesses and improve strengths, but it cannot produce something that is not there. Players, ultimately, fashion tries, through rugby intelligence and skills.
Robinson did not shirk the question, but could state only that the coaches took responsibility for the blunt nature of Scotland’s attack and the answer was simply more hard work on the training field. Really? Does it not lie in the area he deftly avoided mentioning – the players?
Robinson, Gregor Townsend, the attack coach, and Graham Steadman, a defence coach with many ideas on attack, have worked with the players closely over the past 32 months, sharpened angles of running, and improved passing skills, the ability to threaten and off-load.
They have also worked with the pro team coaches and players through the club season, and the fact that Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scotland are now consistently breaking defences shows a wider improvement. It is better to watch than the stultifying rugby before Robinson took over, but still adds up to little at Test level.
Coaches come and go, dependent on the levels of SRU or public frustration, but it does not alter much. From 2000-2003, McGeechan worked to overcome the lack of finishers by altering tactics to target specific weaknesses in opposition. His best moment came with a diamond formation attack, a strength-in-numbers approach, ensuring the ball-carrier had options left, right and directly behind. It produced four tries against Ireland in 2001 and helped move Warren Gatland towards the Dublin exit door.
They also scored four against Italy in 2003 but never since in a Six Nations match - in four of the last eight championships they have not scored more than that in total - and since McGeechan’s sides scored 30 tries in four championships it has only become harder. Williams claimed 12 in two championships, Hadden 19 in four, and Robinson so far has nine in 11 games.
The try rate is dropping and it comes back to the skills of players. One watched Wales pip Ireland in Dublin yesterday with interest. Unsurprisingly, Tommy Bowe and George North notched tries. Bowe scored 34 times for Ulster and so far has 31 tries at the Ospreys, while North has five in his first 22 Scarlets games and now ten in 17 Wales Tests. The recently-retired Shane Williams scored over 80 at club level, 59 for Wales and two for the British and Irish Lions.
England’s Chris Ashton was prolific in Rugby League, and has 88 so far with Northampton and 15 from 19 England Tests, while full-back Ben Foden has over 30 in his career. They have innate skills, but are used to scoring and know how at the top level.
By contrast, Scotland are trying to make a finisher out of the creative Max Evans, who has scored six at Glasgow, three for Scotland and is waiting for his first at Castres. Scotland’s most prolific club scorer, Sean Lamont - with 45 in his club career and eight in 60 Tests – has moved to inside centre. Full-back Rory Lamont has 29 at club level and six for country in seven years and Lee Jones only made his debut at the weekend.
Why are Edinburgh scoring more often? Tim Visser, mainly. He has notched 34 league tries since he pitched up in Edinburgh in 2010, while Jones is following suit, and is just one behind Visser’s four in the Heineken Cup this season. Visser qualifies for Scotland in June, but Robinson cannot afford to wait, hope and pray through a third championship in a row.
His finishing problem does not lie with Dan Parks, though he is not the attacking style of stand-off either to make the most of opportunities in the last third of the field. Greig Laidlaw came off the bench and came closest to scoring for Scotland – other TMOs might have given the try – and so he deserves the chance to lead the team in Cardiff next Sunday.
When Parks is on top form he has great value, but he has not been on form at Cardiff lately and was unable to pick it up on Saturday. The Welsh capital, against players who know him well, is not the place to try to recapture his form.
Chris Cusiter did much that was good on Saturday, but struggled at other times, and with Mike Blair having developed a good relationship with Laidlaw at Edinburgh, and offering a half-back pairing that can inter-change, Blair must in line to return to the No 9 jersey.
Robinson will be looking seriously at promoting one of the Scotland ‘A’ stars. Duncan Weir played well if still behind Laidlaw in his ability to run a game, but the time may be right to promote Stuart Hogg, who underlined his quality with a stunning try against the Saxons.
He is a scorer, albeit not prolific having played much of his club and pro career at stand-off and full-back, and a threat that can shake up the Scottish back line, and worry the Welsh. He is only 19 and, like Laidlaw at stand-off, remains a work in progress, but both have proven themselves ready.
Nick de Luca is nursing a dead leg from the weekend, as are Dave Denton, Richie Gray and Al Kellock, and if De Luca fails to make it Hogg could slip into the centre. Another possibility is shifting De Luca to 12 and giving Hogg the 13 jersey, or star Hogg at full-back? It is a gamble, obviously, and would mean a tough baptism for the teenager inevitably, but Scotland need attacking quality and Hog possesses that.
Up front the pack is strong and with Geoff Cross already replacing the unavailable Euan Murray no-else deserves to be dropped. Faith has to be shown in the efforts of the team to make Scotland more competitive and dangerous in the past two years, but action also has to be taken on the abject failure to turn into tries good scoring opportunities against Argentina, England and England again, on top of Wales, Ireland and England last year. All of those games were eminently winnable, most with just one Scottish try. A team relies on many things to succeed, and cannot with finishers alone. It requires the great, tireless grafters that probably all in this squad have proven themselves to be, and it feeds off creators many have shown themselves to be, but none have been able to take on the mantle of consistent, quality finishing with the pressure at Test pitch.
It is not only public confidence that is finely balanced after Saturday’s drab affair. The longer the drought goes on the more it will affect belief throughout the squad. Nothing comes with a guarantee in sport, but shake it up in the search for tries and the confidence it injects into the squad could be the final ingredient that Robinson needs to make Scotland a genuine title contender.
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