HISTORY tells us we should be a little cautious before breaking into a jig at the renaissance of Scottish rugby. Those of a certain age have been here before, more than once. The two wins from three were encouraging, as much as head coach Vern Cotter could reasonably expect, and the manner of those victories over Argentina and Tonga were a bonus.
It was back in 2007, in a World Cup warm-up match against Ireland, that the Scots last ran in five tries against a first-class opposition, as they did against both Argentina and Tonga. The flip side of that statistic is that, without Tommy Seymour’s interception, they were unable to seriously threaten the All Blacks’ try line. Overall, attack coach Duncan Hodge will be happy with 11 tries in three matches as Glasgow’s back division brought Scotland some success. In their absence Glasgow lost that winning formula.
History suggests that new coaches get a boost simply from being new, a different voice to the one that had gone before, a change from the usual. So Frank Hadden’s maiden Six Nations campaign was rewarded with three wins from five matches including victories over England and France and that 2006 campaign remains the last time Scotland won three matches in the Six Nations. In similar fashion Andy Robinson won two of his autumn openers, including a first victory over the Wallabies for 27 years, before drawing with England and winning in Dublin, which remains the last time the Scots tasted victory in Ireland.
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Cotter has undoubtedly put a smile on the face of Scottish rugby and he now boasts a handy five from seven success rate, although that is a side issue. What is important is the team’s performance. On the summer tour they played poorly, especially in Toronto, but still picked up wins. This autumn the Scots have been winning and playing well with it.
Arguably even more important than the result or the performance is the fact that the Scots have rediscovered something of their old scrapping selves. Against Tonga they soaked up the islanders’ physicality, played some smart rugby and finished comprehensive winners. The attitude against the All Blacks was excellent.
For all that attitude, the front row remains a problem area and the No.3 shirt in particular, although in fairness Geoff Cross enjoyed his best outing on national duty yesterday. Scotland still concede too many penalties and free kicks in this area and every time they do so they bring a ton of pressure on to their own heads, losing possession and field position. Ross Ford does not seem willing or able to hook the ball, although he managed it once…with his knee. He may feel that the front row will collapse if he lifts his leg to strike. Alternatively he may not have the flexibility required to twist his body and hook. Either way it is not ideal to have a hooker who can’t/won’t hook. Happily his arrows invariably found their mark.
Alex Allan and Ryan Grant will return to contest the loosehead shirt but Cotter will be doing what he can to increase his options on the other side of the scrum and Jon Welsh, happily restored to full fitness, may yet have force his way into the reckoning along with WP Nel when the South African qualifies next year.
The back three did plenty of good things and, although he remains a potent threat, Stuart Hogg is still a little wobbly under the bomb and, because of it, he can expect to field perhaps two or three times as many as any other full-back would. With two on the trot, interceptions are fast becoming Tommy Seymour’s party piece, but opponents will be warned. They will work out ways of exploiting his propensity to jump out of the line by holding on to the ball for an extra half second to lure him out of position. It almost cost Scotland a score yesterday.
Finn Russell also looks like a keeper, even if it was Sean Lamont, not Russell as I wrongly reported at the time, who tackled the All Blacks’ Julian Savea before winning the turnover. Russell is learning all the time and one thing he has learned is that he doesn’t have much time to kick the ball. Three times he was charged down by the All Blacks and once by Tonga but he has plenty entries on the opposite side of the ledger, especially his defence where he punches well above his weight, as the Tongans discovered in Kilmarnock.
His half-back partner Greig Laidlaw was a revelation against Argentina – it was like turning the ignition in a Fiat 500 only to find it fitted with a Ferrari engine. He has copped criticism in the past for being small and slow but his speed of thought and deed created two tries against the Pumas and he tackled himself to a standstill against the Blacks, along with a good few others.
He has become so reliable that it is almost sacrilege to question Laidlaw’s kicking off the tee, but the little man missed a sitter, straight on to the posts and 40-odd metres out, against Argentina and he fluffed that 70th-minute penalty to give Scotland the lead against the All Blacks. He will presumably die wondering what might have been had that late strike hit the mark – a good many others certainly will.
That Scotland scored 11 tries in all and came so close to beating the All Blacks is a sure sign of the progress this group of players have made in a short space of time under new management. The fact that New Zealand’s second string XV still won by two clear scores indicates that there is still a long way to go before Scotland can claim a seat at the top table of world rugby.
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