Tom English: Monsoon must be start of new growth for Andy Robinson
THERE are days in rugby when the game’s myriad technical complexities go out of the window and something altogether more base becomes relevant.
Before the Test match at the Hunter Stadium in New South Wales, Scotland would have carried out a fabulous amount of research on their Australian opponents and how best to play them, but there is one aspect of their near-scientific preparation that didn’t need much explaining, one that was almost as relevant to what went on as the scrums and the lineouts and the breakdowns. It was the issue of respect – or, in this case, the lack of it.
On its own, the fact that the Scots had been shunted into a Tuesday night slot over 100 miles from the proper Test arenas of Sydney would have been enough to raise the hackles of the Scottish players, but there was more. The Australians didn’t deem Scotland worthy of a Saturday Test or a traditional Test venue and, on top of that, they picked a side that was experimental, a starting team with five players who had never played international rugby before with a sixth on the bench. When you are looking for an edge how might the Scots have interpreted the message from the Wallabies? Arrogance? You might say that. Disrespect? That, too. “They don’t rate us” would have been an understandable conclusion. “They think they’re going to win no matter what team they put out.”
Let’s face it, there was no way on this Earth that Australia would have had the English, the Irish or the Welsh on a Tuesday in Newcastle. There is no way that they would have picked such a patchwork team against them either. In the minds of the Scots, the notion – fact or not – of being taken so lightly by their hosts was pure motivational gold. These simple things still matter.
For all the history created on Tuesday night, it didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. We knew before this week that the Wallabies have precious little strength in depth, that they struggle when they have to pick from outside their proven performers. The last time they tried a new line-up like this, in Sydney last July, they got turned over by Samoa.
We also already knew that, when it comes to a grim forward battle, Scotland’s eight are a match for most eights in the world. They lack for nothing in heart or hardness. They are a very good set of forwards, regardless of what results tell us. Tuesday’s weather was perfect for them. Their strength is through the pack, their best chance of pulling off big victories coming in games in foul conditions when the sharp back play of their opponents is rendered redundant and the whole shooting match is reduced to a brutal arm wrestle among two sets of forwards. If Andy Robinson’s team could play every Test in a monsoon then they’d be on one hell of a winning run right now.
There is a balancing act to be performed here, though. A perspective to be found. At the risk of seeming to be talking down the win, it has to be put it in context. That might not fit with the patriots’ version of events, but, if we’re going to conduct a proper assessment of Scotland’s achievement, then it’s the honest thing to do.
And the facts are these. Australia started the game without ten of the 15 who began the World Cup semi against New Zealand last autumn. Not that their elite backs would have made much difference on the night, but they were missing Adam Ashley Cooper, James O’Connor and Quade Cooper. Kurtley Beale was also absent. More relevant was who was not in their pack. There was no James Horwill, no Rocky Elsom, no Radike Samo, no Dan Vickerman, no Sekope Kepu and no Ben Alexander until late in the second half.
Scotland played Australia in name only. To be frank, it was more a hybrid of the Test side and Australia A than the full-blown Wallabies. It was still a magnificently gutsy win that has deservedly been hailed from the rooftops, but it should be acknowledged who exactly it was that Scotland beat.
Sure, the Scots had men missing, too. That has to be factored in also. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that Robinson’s team faced the best of Australia and brought them down. They didn’t. That’s the starting point of the analysis.
The relevance of the win comes with a hopefully improved world ranking which may, in turn, help Scotland into a second seed spot for the draw for the next World Cup. The overall significance is impossible to determine, though. We’ve been here before, after all. In November 2009, Scotland beat a stronger Wallaby team than the one they faced on Tuesday, and it sparked similar emotions. The critical thing was having beaten Australia could they then use the win as a launchpad for something really significant? They couldn’t.
The following week Scotland lost to Argentina and, in their three games after that, they were beaten by France, Wales and Italy. That was the first of the Robinson false dawns.
There was another, of course. Scotland seemed to have worked up a head of steam in 2010, winning five out of six games including victories in Ireland, two in Argentina and a defeat of a strong Springbok side at Murrayfield in November. A platform to build on? A sign of serious progress as opposed to fleeting glory? No.
In the two subsequent Six Nations, Scotland won one out of ten and they failed at the World Cup to boot.
So you learn not to read too much into things until you see substantial proof that results have genuinely changed for the better. One-off victories are all very well, but, unless they’re backed up with sustained progress, then the joy is fleeting and ultimately leaves you with an even greater sense of frustration. Scotland must kick on now. They must use the confidence they’ve gained from this result and not blow it like they’ve done in the past.
This column has always felt that the Scottish players were better than their results suggested, that the main problem was not a chronic lack of talent, but an issue with coaching. Nothing about Tuesday has changed that view. It has been said that the victory shows the wisdom of the Scottish Rugby Union in allowing Robinson to carry on in the role despite his tournament failings, but that’s such a simplistic view. He has the players on his side, that’s for sure. That’s to his credit, also. But the question of whether he can get the best out of them is still a burning issue.
Anybody who has seen this team play over the last few years can have no doubts of the quality of the forwards when thrust into a war. They’re not the main problem. They never have been. Games like Tuesday have always been right up Scotland’s street. The issue is when the weather is not Biblical, which is most of the time. Fiji next week, Samoa the week after, then the November internationals and, after that, the true testing ground of progress, the 2013 Six Nations Championship.
The challenge for the Scotland coach is to capitalise on what happened on Tuesday. The supporters have been beaten up by the failings of his regime in recent years. Some lost faith was restored in Newcastle. Robinson can’t afford to waste the goodwill this time.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South