It ended with the vastly experienced Sergio Parisse coming out of the defensive line and thus opening a gap through which Alasdair Strokosch gratefully cantered to score. To no-one’s surprise Greig Laidlaw converted and so Scotland had snatched the victory which they deserved but which had seemed likely to elude them.
Afterwards Scott Johnson was less than complimentary about the performance. One can never be quite sure whether our coach engages his mind before he opens his mouth, but in many ways Scotland did indeed play better in the loss to South Africa than in the win over Italy. That said, there were extenuating circumstances, chief among them the exhaustion of a much-changed and injury-ravaged team. It was noticeable, and perhaps significant, that David Denton was the outstanding Scottish forward; he had played only half a match previously on the tour.
If we had lost, as we so nearly did, no-one would have had any difficulty in identifying the reason: Italy’s almost total dominance in the set scrum. (It was only “almost total” because, thanks perhaps to the late replacement Jon Welsh, Scotland did win a late scrum penalty which enabled us to set up the attacking position from which we eventually scored.) The Italian scrum is of course usually good, whereas our performance in the tight has been inconsistent for some years now.
When a scrum is under pressure, one of the props tends to get the blame. No doubt this is often justified. Nevertheless the strength of a scrum never depends wholly on the front row. Over the last few years the Scottish scrum has tended to hold firm when Jim Hamilton has been one of the locks, and to be under pressure when he hasn’t been playing. He was absent on Saturday and our scrum was in trouble. Italy’s second score came in the form of a penalty try. The sad fact is that, with the present law by which a team is penalised merely for being less powerful than their opponents in the scrum, it is very hard to win a match in which you are not at least holding your own in the set-piece.
Saturday’s victory was therefore all the more meritorious. It was also important. Losing three internationals last autumn set us back after a good summer tour. Perhaps we wouldn’t have lost to Tonga then if we had played them before coming up against New Zealand and South Africa. The last match in a three-game series is always hard. All the more reason to be pleased with coming out on top on Saturday.
Johnson has spoken of the need for strength in depth; fairly enough. So the tour has been valuable because it has given several players the chance to get international experience. Tim Swinson and Alex Dunbar are two who have done well enough to suggest that they should be in the squad for the autumn internationals. Besides the novices, Sean Lamont had a splendid tour. Twelve months ago it seemed as if he might be coming to the end of his international career. No longer; he looks capable of going through to the World Cup in 2015.
It’s good to have alternatives. Nevertheless I hope that Johnson will resist the temptation to tinker in the autumn, and instead identify his best starting XV and best players to have on the bench, and stick with them. This is what Wales have done, barring unavoidable absences through injury. For two years now Warren Gatland and Rob Howley have known which team they wanted to put on the field. Their reward was this season’s Six Nations title. Ireland’s run of success over recent years was built on continuity. Likewise Clive Woodward’s 2003 RWC-winning side. A successful international team usually has about a dozen players whose place in the team is unquestioned. This is what Johnson should be aiming at. There is, of course, always a temptation to make changes when you lose a match, and it’s much easier to practise continuity when you are winning. But continuity is important.
There were too many mistakes and handling errors on Saturday to leave any coach feeling satisfied. Nevertheless, whereas for years we wondered where and how we could score tries, we now look capable of doing that against anyone. We scored three good ones on Saturday, and had one rather oddly disallowed. I say “rather oddly” because the referee, Leighton Hodges, went to the TMO to ask if Tim Visser’s pass to Matt Scott had been forward. The TMO said he could see no conclusive evidence that it was, whereupon Mr Hodges disallowed it because his view of the televised replay – on, I assume, the big screen – suggested there was indeed a forward pass.
The pass may indeed have been forward, but the picture on the stadium screen is never as clear as that on the TMO’s screen. So it was unusual to find the referee overruling his colleague. The South African commentator remarked that “the referee is the sole judge of fact”, which is indeed what the laws say. But is this any longer the case, now that questions of fact are regularly referred to the TMO?