Allan Massie: ‘We played like someone rubbing sleep from his eyes’

“We don’t do mediocre.”?This might be the confession of a Scotland player if he departed from the approved script in a TV interview. “We’re either brilliant or horrible,” he might add. “In Nice we were truly horrible.” So indeed we were, every it as horrible as in the first half-hour at Twickenham in March. That day, as we happily remember , the second half was indeed brilliant. Sadly, there was no such brilliance in the second half last week. The best that could be said is that it wasn’t as horrible as the first.

Rory Hutchinson in action for Scotland against France in Nice. Picture. Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Rory Hutchinson in action for Scotland against France in Nice. Picture. Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU

Defence is, obviously, a problem. In Nice our defence was like a string vest, full of holes. There are obvious extenuating factors: first match in months (in two years indeed) for Duncan Taylor in the No 12 jersey, and an experimental line-up. Moreover France were good; this may be the best French back division for a long time, and their pack was both powerful and efficient. Still, the truth is that you don’t win many matches if you concede five tries and are well behind after twenty minutes.

There has been much talk over the last twelve months about disruption caused by injuries, the absence of Duncan Taylor being often cited. Just as important has been the absence of Alex Dunbar, victim of successive injuries and consequent loss of form. We have missed not only his ability regularly to breach the gain-line but his heavy tackling in defence and power and dexterity at the breakdown. We now have no midfield back as good as Dunbar at the tackle-point.

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Once again in Nice, we played the first quarter of an hour like someone getting up in the morning and blearily rubbing the sleep from his eyes. This is a mental problem, surely not insoluble without the need to call on a sports psychologist. I would have players look at the first ten minutes of the 1990 Grand Slam match and tell them to keep their eyes on Finlay Calder in particular. England had come to Murrayfield in terrific form. Playing technicolour rugby they had scored 23 points against Ireland, 26 against France and 34 against Wales, conceding a total of only 13 points in these matches. The first 10 minutes at Murrayfield told them they weren’t going to enjoy another stroll in the park. If Scotland had started that day in the “after you, Claude” way they started in Nice, it would surely have been England’s Grand Slam, not ours. I wonder what Jim Telfer, as forwards coach, said to his troops before they took the field. Perhaps no more than “get stuck in to the bastards”, though he might have used a stronger word or two.

Things, one trusts , will be very different today, and no merely because of “the Murrayfield effect”.Then perhaps Gregor will be able to settle on the XV he will field against Ireland in the first World Cup match and give it at least an hour in each of the Georgia games. Varying the selection may keep players on their toes, but continuity matters.

I would suppose that there is still uncertainty about the best combination in the centre and the back-row. In the former, assuming Duncan Taylor stays fit and looks ready for international rugby despite his long absence from the game, it will be either Sam Johnson at 12 and Taylor at 13 or Taylor at 12 and Huw Jones outside him. Peter Horne and Chris Harris can make their case today, while Rory Hutchinson, coming on as a replacement in Nice, was one of the few to emerge with his account in credit.

The composition of the back-row may depend on John Barclay’s form. He is another still short of game-time after a long absence. Assuming however he is up to scratch, his experience and skill at the breakdown will surely be needed against Ireland. Hamish Watson is surely the first choice 7. Number 8 is then the problem. Scotland need a powerful ball-carrier there, and not just someone who can make a good driving run when he gets the ball going forward but a player who, like Billy Vunipola or Louis Picamoles, can make ground from a standing start and get over the gain-line. This is all the more important because we are not likely to do more than hold our own – at best – in the set scrum.Blade Thomson may provide the answer, though most of us know little about him. Otherwise Magnus Bradbury, when fit again, may be the best choice, even though he has played most of his recent rugby on the flank.

Last week’s match should be irrelevant today. The Bledisloe Cup games have reminded us, if we needed reminding, how form and performance may fluctuate from week to week. The All Blacks were poor by their standards when away to Australia, devastating in the return. A good lesson for Scotland there.