Alan Massie: Scots forwards fail to deliver

Johnnie Beattie on the move against England. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Johnnie Beattie on the move against England. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WELL, we’ve had worse days at Twickenham, and we’ll have worse ones in the future. Not much consolation in that thought, of course, but there it is.

Things looked bad from the first minute when Ben Morgan charged through Tim Visser and Greig Laidlaw. The West Countryman on the rampage is like a Hereford bullock, but Visser is a big chap himself and should at least have checked him.

Scott Johnson talked about us losing the collisions and the contact area, and yesterday Tom English wrote here about how we lost at the breakdown because we failed to compete effectively on the ground. Absolutely true, but we started by standing off when England took the ball into contact, and declining to commit bodies to the ruck. The players were, one assumes, acting under instructions, the aim being to ensure that the defence is in place when the opposition recycle the ball. Sometimes, however, you should compete and engage in counter-rucking. It’s a matter of judgment when you commit and when you don’t. Too often, it seemed, the wrong decision was made. Then when we took the ball into the tackle, support was too often slow in arriving, and consequently Laidlaw, like other Scottish scrum-halves in recent years, was receiving the sort of ball you can’t do much with.

In the past English forwards have often overpowered us; on Saturday they outpaced us. This is worrying. Too many slowcoaches in the Scotland scrum?

The quality of ball was so poor that the Scottish halves were almost always getting it on the back foot. Both Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson have come in for criticism, but my impression was that if you had switched the halves from one team to the other, Jackson and Laidlaw might have looked rather good, and Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs would have been in difficulties. I would expect Scott Johnson to field the same halves against Italy; it would be absurd to drop them because the forwards failed to deliver. Jackson moreover tackled very well – as fly-halves must do nowadays – and our second try was sparked off by his decision to run the ball from our own line when Kelly Brown secured one of our rare turnovers.

Both our tries were splendid, evidence of the pace and power we now have in the back three. Some are calling for Stuart Hogg to be moved to outside centre. This would surely be a mistake. Full-back is often the best position for your most dangerous runner. Hogg will have more opportunities at 15 than he would have at 13. Gavin Hastings scored more international tries than brother Scott, and Andy Irvine more than Jim Renwick. Hogg, Sean Maitland and Visser can all respond to poor kicks by running from deep, and can all enter the line from unexpected angles.

It’s the forwards who are surely the immediate concern. Johnson may well consider that two or three who were below par on Saturday will do better this week. That’s often the way, especially with props. The back-row, however, may see a change.

Johnnie Beattie and David Denton are similar players and over the next couple of years are likely to be in competition as John Beattie senior and Iain Paxton were in the 1980s. Both did good things on Saturday, Beattie with one storming run and that near-interception that might have led to a try between the posts and a score of 25-31 going into the last minutes of the match. Denton put in an awful lot of tackles and his deft off-load to Sean Maitland helped set up our second try. He also made a couple of horrible mistakes, one of which led directly to an England penalty. If Beattie made fewer conspicuous ones, he again tended to disappear from the match for quite long periods. Like his father he is a spasmodic player. I expect he will get the nod from the coach, that Kelly Brown will move to 6 and Rob Harley be brought in at 7, with Denton on the bench.

Before the game everybody agreed that we would lose if we gave away penalties in our own half. We gave away four in the first 40 minutes, and so we lost.

Yet the really crucial spell of the match was the first ten minutes of the second half. We needed to dominate then and snatch a score. We failed to do so. England came out sharper and faster, took control of the game, and never relaxed their hold. They look a decidedly good team.

Even so, and in the disappointment of defeat, we should remember that international matches are so often decided on the margins. The first English try offers a good example of this truth. Chris Ashton got the touchdown, fair enough, but a Scottish boot was within an inch or a microsecond of dislodging the ball from his hand before it was placed on the ground. Likewise there were many – among them Brian Moore – who reckoned that the pass that put the admirable Billy Twelvetrees in for England’s second try was more than a little forward of flat.

Not that we have any reasonable grounds for complaint. England were much the better side, and deserved to win. Yet if our forwards display more devil and better judgment than they did at Twickenham, we have the makings of a decent team, capable of winning a couple of the three matches at Murrayfield.