I CAN’T be alone in feeling that the World Cup seems to have been imminent for a good couple of months, yet still we find ourselves with almost three weeks until Scotland play their first game. If the build-up has been protracted for us armchair experts, then players from the home nations must be jumping out of their skins by now.
All of them will, of course, recognise how necessary their long pre-season has been if they have any chance of success at the tournament. They will have relished the chance to make gains in the best possible conditions and some (strange people) may actually have enjoyed all the torturous training their fitness coaches have put them through. But the groundhog day of gym, training pitch, ice baths and protein shakes without the buzz of competitive action as a reward can eventually send you a bit loopy. We are now at the point where almost all the hard work has been done, and there is a real sense of “Can we just get on with it now?” emanating from the various camps.
It’s hard to remember a Scotland team looking so solid and in control – comfortable, almost
However, first there is yet another round of warm-up games to get through. Most of the players will be glad of a final run-out, but the coaches’ main concern will surely be that their key players come through this weekend unharmed. Even rugby nations with the deepest resources are only an injury or two away from disaster. Most famously, in the last World Cup, New Zealand found itself in a national crisis after injuries to Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade, and the team only just scraped home thanks to a sclaffed penalty by Steve “Beaver” Donald, the reserves’ reserves’ reserve.
OK, those were fairly exceptional circumstances, but imagine what an injury to Jonny Sexton or Paul O’Connell now would do to Ireland’s very real hopes of challenging for the trophy. Wales can’t afford to lose any one of Alun Wyn Jones, George North or Leigh Halfpenny if they are to have a chance of repeating 2011’s feats. And just think how England’s lineout would suffer if they were without Dylan Hartley, the only proven top-level thrower in their squad. Oh, hang on…
While it is vital that Scotland get their very best XV out on the pitch as often as possible, we do find ourselves in the unusual position of having strength in depth in certain positions, second row and back row in particular, and arguably at scrum-half and centre.
Elsewhere, like every other nation, we are very reliant on the continued fitness of our first picks. For instance, at tighthead, WP Nel has been the only No 3 to really convince in the warm-up games and the coaches must be delighted with how he coped with Italy’s scrum. They would also be delighted if Scotland were to draw Romain Poite as referee again in a quarter-final.
At hooker, while there is no doubting the all-round excellence of Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally, there is an undeniable gap between them and Ross Ford in terms of top-level experience and set-piece nous. The line-out was superb again against Italy, and Ford has some real consistency in his throwing at the moment.
In other positions, the fact that there are guys inked in is actually a very positive development for the Scottish game. Players like Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell fall into the shoo-in category, not due to a lack of very good alternatives but because they have qualities which clearly set them apart from their peers. When guys like these come along, coaches suddenly have access to players who can exert individual influence over a match, either by skill or sheer force of personality, players who add real value to a team rather than simply filling a spot.
Scotland were very good last week. It’s hard to remember a Scotland team looking so solid and in control – comfortable, almost – and, up front, you get the feeling that a lot of that solidity is built around Jonny Gray. On rewatching the match, the manner of the performance reminded me, rightly or wrongly, of the way South Africa have sometimes put us away in the past. A solid set-piece, smothering defence, big ball carriers rumbling over the gainline round the ruck and two try-poaching wingers to take the game out of reach. We kept Italy at arm’s length from start to finish, just as South Africa do to lesser teams when they are in the mood. Perhaps one element of the performance which wasn’t quite up to Springbok standards was the kicking from hand, but it is understandable that a kicker’s timing be slightly off in the first game or two of the season.
Whether all this means that we can take South Africa on at their own game in a month’s time is a moot point, but today’s match will certainly give us a better idea of where we stand in the power stakes. France are blessed with a number of giant yet athletic ball-carriers and, defensively, Scotland were sometimes hanging on by the skin of their teeth in this year’s Six Nations match. After their displays over the last few weeks, they will surely be hoping for at least parity in the battle for the gainline this time around.
Secondary to the performance, but only just, is that everyone comes through safe and sound. There are some players we just can’t afford to lose.