Allan Massie: Fierce competition among Scots provides good reason for optimism
WITH Wimbledon going strong and Andy Murray’s chance of reaching the final at least having perhaps been improved by Lukas Rosol’s extraordinary defeat of Rafa Nadal, it may seem perverse to be harking back to Scotland’s three victories in the southern hemisphere.
Yet, since I wrote before the tour that to win all three games would be a miracle, it seems right to dwell on the miracle and its implications.
In the Six Nations, Scotland lost all five matches, though three at least – those against England, Wales and France – might have been won, and two of them probably should have been. Now we have beaten Australia, Fiji and Samoa, and, while welcoming this achievement, one should admit that they were all close-run things, and that Samoa were every bit as unlucky to lose as we were in the Calcutta Cup.
That said, the fact that Scotland came from behind to dominate the last ten minutes of the match and that Mike Blair was able to create space to enable the excellent Rob Harley to score the winning try was very satisfying. It was nice to see us snatch victory from the jaws of defeat rather than the other way round. Still, Andy Robinson’s teams have met with success before – in Argentina and in autumn victories over Australia and South Africa – only to be unable to build on these successes. Will it be different this time?
The first thing to be said is that these wins have all been laudable team efforts.
We now have a good crop of players of genuine international stature. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t go overboard. Nobody in this Scotland squad will be an automatic selection for the Lions Test XV next summer. Richie Gray may be closest to being that, partly because the competition at lock is weaker than in most other positions. In general, over the years, whenever Scotland, Wales and Ireland have been strong, it has been because there have been three or four world-class players in their line-up.
There are, however, reasons for optimism. Competition for places in almost every position is fiercer than it has been for a long time. The four players from our Six Nations team who missed the tour – Lee Jones, Allan Jacobsen, Jim Hamilton and David Denton – may quite reasonably have mixed feelings: delight at the team’s success, disappointment at not having been able to share in it, and a touch of anxiety about regaining their place in the starting XV. One might suggest that Jones and Denton have least to worry about, even though both are faced with stiff competition: Jones because, with Tim Visser now qualified to play for Scotland, he is competing with Sean Lamont, Max Evans and perhaps Joe Ansbro for the number 14 jersey; Denton because we have as many really good back-row players as we had in the 1980s, with seven or eight candidates for three positions. Besides Denton himself and those on the tour, Kelly Brown will be playing again next season, though it may not be until the Six Nations that he is quite ready for international rugby.
Then there do seem to be more good young players coming through than for a long time. Matt Scott did enough to suggest that he has a firm hold of the number 12 jersey, but the way Alex Dunbar played for Glasgow in the last weeks of the season means that he is now a contender for either of the centre-threequarter positions. Yet Nick De Luca also played very well on tour.
The fly-half pecking order looks established for the time being: Greig Laidlaw, Duncan Weir, Ruaridh Jackson. Club form could unsettle that. At scrum-half there is no young player yet challenging Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson, but there is always the possibility of Laidlaw reverting to scrum-half. Even Stuart Hogg, who made such a splendid start in the Six Nations, has a challenger in Edinburgh’s Tom Brown.
All this is healthy. Nevertheless, while pressure on first-choice players is welcome, one should note that successful international teams are more often than not settled teams.
There are still weaknesses too, notably our inability to deal with restarts. How many points has this cost us in the last two or three years? It’s my impression that we have been incompetent in this respect, since we lost Scott Murray, Jason White and Simon Taylor, all of whom could usually be relied on to deal with the restart.
Finally, a word on the performance of the under-20 side in the Junior World Cup. They recovered well from a disastrous start against Australia – unfortunately the only one of their five matches to be televised. Narrow losses to France and Argentina were followed by convincing defeats of Italy and Samoa. So they finished in ninth place – the same as the senior team’s ranking after their tour. Remarkably, the young Scots scored more tries than any other team in the tournament, with Jamie Farndale running in six. Given Edinburgh’s try-scoring feats in the Heineken, dare we begin to hope that the days of the try famine are drawing to a close?
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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