AS ANNOYING as they may be, the hackneyed old comments around rain suiting Scotland’s play remained stunningly apt after Andy Robinson’s side ended a seven-match run of defeats with a historic first victory on Australian soil in 30 years.
We know that Scotland’s improvement in recent times, and the route back into the top echelon of world rugby, lies with “up-skilling” players, improving the attacking threat and finishing ability, but Robinson’s team proved again in Australia that winning ugly remains a key fortitude in the Scottish psyche on the highest stage.
Psychologists have toiled for years to link the Scottish battle heroes of the past to the modern age, to understand the genetic make-up of a race drawn from different bands of warriors, invaders and proud Celts, and still produce dichotomies. Yet, there is undoubtedly something strong and clear in sport when Scots are pitched as the underdogs and the weather whips up a storm around them that unearths a spirit few on the global stage can match.
Australia came into the first Test against Scotland handicapped by missing around half of their first-choice players, either through injury or Super 15 commitments last weekend. But, Scotland travelled to the southern hemisphere minus a handful of players central to the cause in the recent World Cup and Six Nations Championship.
And they stood toe-to-toe with the Wallabies to record a second straight win, following the 9-8 success at Murrayfield in 2009. That was Robinson’s first Test victory with Scotland. His second big one came in the rain in Argentina where his side again held their nerve against a late Puma onslaught as the beach resort of Mar Del Plata was threatened with floods.
Yesterday, there were severe weather warnings on Australia’s east coast, people were warned to stay indoors, boats were moored off the coast to avoid wrecks and eight-metre high waves forecast to crash into seaside towns. The temperature was 10 degrees, four below Scotland, the wind roared through the Hunter Stadium at around 32km per hour while, ironically, large parts of Scotland were bathed in sunshine.
And on the Australian storm a Test match blew in that could have huge significance for Scotland. The 9-6 victory could move Scotland back into the top ten in the IRB world rankings, from the 12th spot in which they finished the recent RBS Six Nations. That will be confirmed officially next week, as they prepare for the second Test of the tour against Fiji a week on Saturday, with Samoa, currently ranked tenth, to come the following week.
Another two wins with autumn Tests to come against New Zealand, South Africa and Tonga, currently ninth in the world, has the potential to propel the Scots back into the top eight, and second seed status in December’s draw for the 2015 World Cup. Two or three wins from the remaining five games would probably be enough to get there.
But once the celebrations die down, the squad return to the Sydney resort of Manly, recover from the many bumps and bruises and look ahead to Fiji, the reality will remain that this was only the beginning for this squad.
This was an under-strength Wallaby team with five new caps coming into a first Test of the year with just one full training session under its belt, and while we will never know if the weather hampered their performance more than Scotland’s it did play to that Scottish strength of digging deep when the heavens launch a full frontal assault.
Robinson has made uncovering a more threatening attack his priority in recent times, which has led him now to Australian skills coach Scott Johnson, and yesterday was not the day to witness any notable change there. But it is likely to be demanded in Suva in ten days’ time against a Fijian team expected to try to run Scotland off the field in celebration of a rare home Test match against tier-one opponents.
Like many of his predecessors his best moments as Scotland coach have come more from graft than skill.
That is not to lessen the manner in which Scotland competed with the Wallabies in a rain-soaked Newcastle at the breakdown, nor the way they held their nerve and cleverly grasped the field position, and turned the screw in the scrum at the perfect moment, to secure the match-winning penalty, but this was another famous day when the performance played a distinct second fiddle to the result.
The Scots dominated possession in the first quarter, but a plethora of knock-ons in the home 22 and a missed penalty by Greig Laidlaw continued the recent story of promising so much, but delivering little.
The weather provided mitigating factors here that were lacking on the last outing in a sunny Rome, so, in truth, we are still to discover whether this Scotland team is any more adept in attack.
They can hold onto the ball through an impressive number of phases, but where the Wallabies threatened to burst through and score tries with ever-more dynamic building of the phases – albeit in rare and ultimately futile periods – Scotland’s best route to victory still was through the boot of a goal-kicker. Duncan Weir may be pushing Greig Laidlaw for a shot on tour, but so important is the Borderer to the Scotland cause, in the same way Chris Paterson was before him, that one cannot see a start for Weir just yet.
Johnson will set to work in earnest this week and, one hopes, under more pleasant Manly skies before the trip to Fiji. He will bid to instil his own attacking philosophy, based around what he sees as strengths of Scottish individuals, but what he can achieve in a week is perhaps less to do with skills and more with what is in Scots heads.
The attack has actually improved in shape and threat this season, but the tries needed to turn competitive matches into wins have not materialised, and nowhere does the confidence take a bigger dent than when losing a series of games that one felt sure you should have won.
That is where beating Australia promises a fresh galvanising effect; an ability to lift confidence, ambition and change fortunes. It would be ridiculous to expect an immediate turnaround, but confidence in sport is arguably the single most influential factor to winning and losing.
This win is also a timely boost for Robinson’s self-belief. The defeats to Wales and Italy, particularly, made him question his approach, his tactics, his style. Many urged the SRU to sack him, but instead the union questioned him and he came out fighting, insisting he would get it right. Murrayfield’s leadership agreed to show faith and they were right to do so.
He has begun the process of rebuilding by retaining the team spirit vital to any Scottish cause, and he has been rewarded with an incredible second win over the Wallabies in two Tests with Scotland. What Matt Williams would have given for that.
But, as great as this win was, some believed before this tour started that Fiji and Samoa on their patches could prove more difficult than a thrown-together Australia side. Most of this Scotland squad has experienced glorious one-offs before. Their challenge now is to build something more lasting.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 18 June 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 10 mph
Wind direction: South
Temperature: 10 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West