Tom English: From Kiwi assassins to brutal Boks

Andy Robinson's Scotland could not match the pace of New Zealand. Picture: Jane Barlow
Andy Robinson's Scotland could not match the pace of New Zealand. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IN THE movie Goodfellas, the young mobster Henry Hill is talking about life and the kind of wise guys you really needed to watch out for, not the guys that shoot their mouth off about what they’re gonna do and how they’re gonna do it, but the other guys, the quiet ones, the ones in the crew who pretended to be your friend and then whacked you. “Murderers come with smiles,” said Henry.

And that’s what the All Blacks did last Sunday at Murrayfield. They came with smiles. Dan Carter is as cheery a character as there is in world rugby and yet he is the game’s most cold-blooded assassin. As he cut Scotland to shreds, he did it with a smile on his face.

After the rapier comes the bludgeon. New Zealand brought an attacking game that ran the gamut from A-Z. South Africa’s gameplan doesn’t get past A. It’s biff and more biff. Grunt and more grunt.

They beat Ireland at the Aviva last weekend because they got hold of the ball in the second half and drove it up remorselessly, as the Springboks tend to do. They were about as subtle as a pig in slop. No wonder, when considering who to name in place of the stricken Ross Rennie, Robinson went for the brute force of Dave Denton over the poaching of John Barclay.

Robinson will have eaten the DVD from Dublin for breakfast, lunch and dinner this week. Not all the cheap shots and sly digs are shown on screen but the word is that there were plenty of them from the Boks. Jannie du Plessis’ shoulder charge on Jonathan Sexton, JP Pietersen’s shoulder charge on Mike McCarthy, Eben Etzebeth’s punch to 
McCarthy’s face – and more.

They are a team in transition, a team that is unsure of itself and a team that, in the absence of Bryan Habana, a man who has scored 50 per cent of their tries over the past eight Tests, is relying increasingly on its physical power to get the job done. Scotland have the artillery to live with what the Springboks throw at them on Saturday via Route One as opposed to all the different routes New Zealand came at them from.

This is a big chance for Robinson’s team to claim another Springbok scalp.

In Dublin, South Africa were impotent in the first half when Ireland denied them a platform to launch their rolling maul, but once they battered the resistance they won the Test. Their physicality was impressive, but this Irish team, remember, was shorn of some of its biggest hitters up front on the day.

No Paul O’Connell, no Stephen Ferris, no Rory Best. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had those three been able to bring their power to the park.

South Africa come across as a team under desperate pressure, typified by Heyneke Meyer, their coach. “The desire to get it right for fear of letting down a nation is causing anxiety,” wrote Mark Keohane, a South African rugby blogger. “Meyer’s approach that every Test has to be viewed as a World Cup final is not flawed in that he never wants to diminish a Test match but the execution is creating trepidation when there should be expectation.”

Meyer has spoken glowingly about Scotland. Frankly, he’s in severe danger of going over the top in assessing the danger coming at his team on Saturday. You can see his point, though. In a straightforward physical confrontation, Scotland have the tools to survive. It’s a question about whether they believe in themselves or not. Since Sunday, it has been mentioned more than once that Robinson’s team bounced from an autumn drubbing at the hands of the Kiwis in 2010 and beat the Springboks a week later.

It’s true, they did. But that was the exception rather than the rule. More often, Scotland have followed up one poor defeat with another and then another. It’s been the narrative of the Robinson era. Alasdair Strokosch describes their problem as a mental issue. He’s convinced that it’s psychology that is holding this team back and nothing else.

Saturday will be the test of that. These South Africans are wearing the Springbok jersey and carry the aura of one of the truly great rugby nations, but the 2012 team is a work in progress and it is vulnerable and beatable so long as Scotland believe.

Given the failings of three successive Six Nations championships and one World Cup – 19 games and only four wins, two of them against Romania and Georgia – Robinson is lucky to have his job. On Saturday, in a winnable Test, he could do with reminding us why he’s still there.

Lions guessing game is starting far too early

EVERY four years, the countdown to the Lions tour seems to begin earlier and earlier. For the tour in South Africa in the summer of 2009 the gun seemed to be fired on the build-up in early spring before a ball had been kicked in anger in the Six Nations. We had a pre-Six Nations Lions team selected by all and sundry, then we had a Lions team selected after every round of the Six Nations, sometimes changing hour by hour depending on who was kicking off early on the Saturday and who was kicking off late. Everybody was at it and it was all good fun.

What we’ve got now, though, is the preamble to next summer’s tour to Australia

beginning not before the Six Nations but before the autumn internationals.

Last week, Gavin Hastings was all over the place in announcing his Lions selection for the first Test against the Wallabies. Yesterday, George Gregan did the same. Lions Watch has already surfaced online and on radio stations and in newspapers. It’s November for the love of God!

I’d wager here and now that Hastings’s team will bear no resemblance to the actual XV that run out to play the Australians. He had Nick Easter at No 8, for goodness sake. Everybody knows that Toby Faletau will get the No 8 jersey. You see? It’s so easy to get sucked into this guessing game.

The enduring fascination of the Lions is that you never know who is going to make it and who isn’t. Many would have said that Sam Warburton was nailed-on to captain the party, but he has just lost his place in the Wales team, so what chance Warburton now?

Levein’s plan to sue SFA is excruciating

Craig Levein should get hold of Ashley Cole’s autobiography, for there is much in there that will resonate with the former Scotland manager. You can imagine Levein nodding his head in sympathetic support when reading the pages that outline Cole’s shock and disgust upon hearing in 2006 of the £55,000-a-week pittance that Arsenal were prepared to pay him in his new contract. Had Levein been close to the player at the time, he might have

advised him to sue.

In his new role as failed Scotland manager, Levein commands a salary of around £35,000 a month, a wage he will continue to earn until such time as he gets another job, whereby the £35,000 will stop and he will be paid whatever lower order team he ends up at are prepared to pay him. If, indeed, he finds a team.

One of the great problems of his reign was his stubbornness and his lack of self-awareness, parts of his personality that are again doing him damage at the moment, damage that he’s just too blind to see. After only three competitive wins in almost three years, his reputation as a football manager has taken a frightful pounding but his pursuit of his employers through the courts for a lump sum pay-off serves as an excruciating commentary on Levein the man.

Maybe he’s still too immersed in the denial phase to realise how bad his planned legal action looks to the watching public – and to

potential employers in the


Only talking a good game

Even if you disagree with what they’re proposing, the SFL are to be congratulated for their endeavour in stating their case for the reconstruction of the domestic game. While the SFL have been firing out ideas on all fronts, the SPL are sitting on their hands until a meeting of their board on 2 December.

These are important moments for the state of the game in Scotland, but the temptation is to sigh your way through the process until the footballing authorities come to a mature consensus. The message to the SFA, SPL and the SFL is: “It’s good to talk, but don’t expect too many of us to listen until you can get through a discussion with each other without self-interest taking hold”. In the meantime, and with all due respect to those at the coalface of change: Yawn.