AS THE dust begins to settle on Sunday’s heartbreaking defeat by Australia – when a semi-final place was just 60 seconds away – there are positives and negatives to take from this World Cup for Vern Cotter’s men
GLASS HALF EMPTY
1 Watching Scotland play rugby is a little like having the TV stuck on ITV3 because there are nothing but repeats. The driving maul cost Scotland dear in the Six Nations and come the World Cup they conceded tries to Japan, South Africa and Australia to exactly that tactic. Teams will continue to exploit the weakness. The re-starts were awful against Samoa and almost cost Scotland the game. The re-starts were awful against Australia and did cost Scotland the game.
2 Discipline and defence are the twin foundation stones of any successful team and Scotland’s have got it half right; they concede very few penalties but leak tries like an old colander. They had no right to be within hailing distance of the Wallabies on Sunday after conceding five tries in 55 minutes with the first coming inside the opening ten. If Australia found the odd hole or five in Scotland’s defensive wall, then the Samoans barely noticed one brick standing on another as they ran in three in the space of 11 minutes.
3 A slew of tries against Japan and the USA somewhat muddied the waters but Scotland’s attack didn’t really get out of second gear against the big beasts with Finn Russell looking like the novice he is. Against the Springboks the Scots managed one try from an interception and against the Wallabies the three touchdowns were all a little fortuitous; one solo effort by Peter Horne, above, one charge down that fell to Tommy Seymour and another interception by Mark Bennett, right. All three were taken well but not one of them was a carefully constructed joint effort by the backs.
4 In a game of fine margins the Scots are only halfway to closing out a tight game. On another day the Scots could have easily lost to a rampant Samoa, or even a properly rested Japan, and exited at the pool stages. On another day the Scots could have beaten Australia and faced off against Los Pumas in a World Cup semi-final. Games are won and lost on small margins and this group of Scottish players showed courage against Samoa to win after trailing 23-16 but a lack the experience and/or leadership showed in Sunday’s defeat. Claim that Australian re-start and, if you do go and lose it and go behind, kick short and high at your own re-start to have any chance of regaining possession with 30 seconds on the clock.
5 This young team doesn’t get to think for itself. All too often on-field problems were not being rectified until after Vern Cotter and his coaching team had laid down the law in the half-time sheds. Kick-off receptions were awful because small men like Mark Bennett were placed just behind the ten- metre line where the Samoans targeted him. Against Samoa the Scots were suckered into playing fast and loose and only reverted to their set piece strengths after Cotter’s half-time reminder. This team needs to engage its strategic brain to exploit its full potential. Josh Strauss’s inclusion in the starting XV may help.
GLASS HALF FULL.
1 This is a young side and almost all of them will be available in four years’ time for RWC’19 in Japan; just three of Sunday’s starting team were the wrong side of 30, Greig Laidlaw, Ross Ford and Alasdair Dickinson. The average age of Sunday’s XV was just 26.5 years. By the 2019 World Cup these players will be four years older, four years wiser and, with a little luck, more used to winning rugby. With the potential of a few more good young ’uns coming through, the rugby outlook is a lot sunnier than a traditional Scottish summer.
2 This is a tight-knit squad that displayed more true grit than John Wayne and Jeff Bridges combined. They showed an admirable cussedness even when going behind, which they did more often than ideal, to the USA, Samoa and Australia. They toughed things out, adjusted and dug deep in refusing to bend the knee in adversity which has not always been true in recent seasons. They may concede too many tries but this team is still not easy to beat.
3 They have room for improvement as a collective but several of Scotland’s forwards have made their mark in this tournament and will be in the mix for the next Lions tour if they keep it up. WP Nel, John Hardie and Gordon Reid have all impressed but David Denton has been a revelation. The big Zimbabwean-born breakaway was the stand-out forward on Sunday, a workhorse who has cut out the handling errors that undermined his game and his confidence. He was throwing himself into contact like a man possessed and one try-saving tackle against Samoa summed up his attitude. The Gray brothers were not far behind. Jonny tops the tackle count to date, Richie sits three places back. Good work fellas.
4 There are others to come into this side and few would have given the Scots much hope in the absence of a key figure like Alex Dunbar who is needed both for his defensive solidity and for his attacking zest. The backs were just a little too small in this World Cup and Dunbar and/or Saracens’ Duncan Taylor will bring some much-needed muscle to Scotland’s attack. Grant Gilchrist will return to challenge Richie Gray for the No 4 jersey and challenge Greig Laidlaw for the captaincy although he will have his work cut out on both counts.
5 Last but not least a Scotland side that was whitewashed in the Six Nations came within 60 seconds of making only their second ever appearance in the semi-finals of the World Cup which is a big step in the right direction. Of course the team was changed beyond recognition with two South African projects bringing some beef and one Kiwi flanker bringing some rugby nous to the backrow. Over the course the Scots scored some brilliant tries and conducted themselves with considerable dignity in the face of unwarranted adversity. Ultimately they did what they had to do… earn a place in the quarters and a little respect. They have no excuses now we know just how good this lot can be.