Scots inch forward on path to improvement
THERE are some traditions that have survived the transformation into the professional era and, while Andy Robinson may not eat meat, he has nothing against knocking back a barrel or so of beer – if only in the absence of his favoured cider.
It is the final day of Scotland’s summer tour and the coach is looking remarkably good for a man who got to bed in the wee small hours but, then again, the sword of Damocles is no longer hanging over his head. With three wins under his belt and the feelgood factor returned to Scottish rugby following Saturday’s tour-ending 17-16 win over Samoa, Robinson must be sleeping better.
“Are you ever really comfortable as a head coach?” he asks with a smile. “It’s important as a coach never to assume anything. I enjoyed the Six Nations, the work we did together as a group but I obviously hated the results. This tour, right from the first day when we landed in Australia and walked along Coogee Bay to Bondi Beach, everything has worked very, very smoothly. We went for a walk at six in the morning. It’s just about what has been achieved throughout the tour, everyone has had enthusiasm for it.
“What I’m reminded about is that winning and losing in international rugby is about inches and you’ve got to be fighting for those inches to make sure that they stack up on your side. One of those inches yesterday was a conversion from Greig Laidlaw from the far touchline and into the wind. If he doesn’t kick that kick then we probably won’t be in a position to win that game and the beauty of rugby is that everybody has a part to play.”
For inches read millimetres, because Scotland have ridden their luck like a rodeo champion on this trip with almost every close call going their way. The weather in Newcastle ensured that the Wallaby Test was a battle of wills rather than skills which the Australians would almost certainly have won. In Fiji, the Scots showed real character not to disintegrate completely when the home side mounted that second-half fightback and the will to win, even when almost everyone had given them up for dead in Apia, was something to behold.
Critics can not have it both ways, bashing the team when they play well and lose (as against England) and bashing the team again when they play badly and win, as happened in the early hours of Saturday morning. Whatever disappointments emerged from the Samoan match – and credit to Scotland for making the trip in the first place – there were positives to take from this tour above and beyond the three wins and some IRB ranking points. The list of standout players includes some grizzled veterans alongside fresher faces.
“If you want to look at individual players, then Ryan Grant coming through was a positive,” said Robinson about the prop who has helped turn the scrum from a worry into a weapon. “You get players who get the opportunity but it’s about taking it. A lot of players have been given the opportunity for international rugby and not really taken it, not grabbed it. But I thought that Ryan in the three games did very well. For him to play the whole 80 minutes in every game was a big shift.”
“Also we had Matt Scott’s performances and Al Strokosch,” said Robinson, paying tribute to his choice as the player of the tour. “I’ve looked at the workrate and tackle statistics in all three games and Strokosch has headed them, but also his ability to get through the tackle and disrupt the opposition was exemplary. Also his ball carrying, he stood up and carried really well.
“And Matt really come through strongly on this trip. Who’d have thought six months ago that he’d be in the position he’s in? He had a great end to his Edinburgh season and then he’s come through and performed as well as he did on the tour, so you’ve got players that are just going to get better and better. There are three players who really stood out but also the reuniting of the spirit, the collective work throughout and the doggedness to win the games was very pleasing.”
The flip side of the coin, the area causing the coach to worry, is the fact that his side have yet to put together a rounded 80-minute Test match. Against Fiji, the Scots managed four tries but they fell off too many tackles when the game opened up. On Saturday, the defence was quick and aggressive but the attack was error strewn.
“Well, if you can’t catch the ball you aren’t going to see any attack,” was Robinson’s response to a day when too many players sported feet instead of hands.
Scotland now have options in the forwards, especially when the likes of Fraser McKenzie, Grant Gilchrist, Jim Hamilton and David Denton are considered, but there is still too little competition for places in the backline, with the possible exception of scrum-half. Scott and Nick De Luca were both occasionally excellent but they need rivalry to spur them on and it isn’t there.
Robinson points to several under-20 players coming through the ranks, Mark Bennett, Harry Leonard and Jamie Farndale were all name-checked and, given where Scott was six months ago, who is to say that one or more of the above won’t be in the mix come November? For all the heat and humidity, this South Seas trip will seem like a holiday compared to hosting New Zealand and South Africa on consecutive weekends at Murrayfield.
“You want to play against the best. That’s how you improve,” argues Robinson, despite knowing the All Blacks had just stuck 60 points past Ireland, a team that Scotland have beaten just twice in the last decade.
“After the New Zealand game two years ago, when we got a real hiding we improved the next week to beat a good South African side. We know that this South African side is going to be physical but you stand toe to toe with it. This New Zealand side is going to have a lot of rugby before we play it. It will be vital that we are at our very best as always.
“A sell-out crowd at Murrayfield on a Sunday come to watch Scotland do something that they have never done and beat New Zealand! Wouldn’t it be great to be a part of that team and that’s what the players should now be working on, when they return from holiday, to be in that team.”
Nobody said the life of a professional rugby player was supposed to be easy.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 9 mph
Wind direction: South
Temperature: 6 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west