FOR the second quarter of the match we looked like a pretty good side. The rest of the time we were struggling to keep England out. That the final margin of defeat was respectable owed as much to English misjudgments as to the resolution of a brave Scottish defence. So, victory at Twickenham has been postponed yet again, and those of us who were there in 1983 can continue to bore our juniors with our memories.
Nevertheless, although we have lost all four matches in the tournament, this doesn’t, as Andy Nicol said, feel anything like as bad as in other years when we have added to our collection of wooden spoons. There have been enough good things, enough signs that winter may be giving way to spring, to allow us to believe that better results will follow improved performances.
One thing is, however, undeniable. We may talk about there being more competition for places, and this is probably the case. Yet the pool of talent remains shallow, and we can’t afford to lose players on account of injury or suspension. It’s aye been like that. We won Grand Slams in 1984 and 1990 because we mostly escaped injuries and were able to field almost exactly the same team in every match.
Today, Alex Dunbar and Richie Gray would be two of the first names on most people’s teamsheet. They were both absent injured at Twickenham. Dunbar’s defensive skills and ability to read the game were sorely missed. Matt Scott is a fine player, but he has had little rugby this season, and it showed. Moreover, in Edinburgh’s last two games, he has been at 13, not 12 and the defensive demands are different. He had played very well for his club against Treviso a week ago, but that was much less demanding than facing up to England at Twickenham.
David Denton is another who has had too little rugby. He was tremendous on Saturday – even Sir Clive Woodward called him “outstanding” – but he lasted for little more than 50 minutes, and we missed him when he was taken off. With luck he’ll last rather longer against Ireland – even perhaps the full 80 minutes
Finn Russell is also short of recent game time. This was his first outing for a month, and it showed. He did some very good things – that lovely inside ball which set Tommy Seymour into space, for instance – but a good many that were not at all good. The best that could be said of his performance is that it was no worse than Jonny Sexton’s in Cardiff a couple of hours before, and Sexton is generally considered the best No 10 in the Six Nations. Those who are now ready to criticise Russell might care to remember that John Rutherford had played seven times for Scotland before tasting victory.
There have been enough signs that winter may be giving way to spring
There has also been a lot of criticism of Greig Laidlaw’s box-kicking. Well, all scrum-halves use the box-kick a lot these days. Ireland‘s Conor Murray is regarded as a master of the ploy, and a couple of weeks ago had England in all sorts of trouble with his box-kick. But he was no more successful with it in Cardiff than Laidlaw was at Twickenham. For my part I thought Laidlaw looked very good in the second quarter when his forwards were supplying ball that was quick enough to let him snipe round the edges of the breakdown and when his speed of thought and accuracy of pass set up Mark Bennett’s beautifully taken try. But he was sucked into mediocrity in the second half.
Besides Denton, Stuart Hogg. Mark Bennett, Jonny Gray and Blair Cowan were all excellent on Saturday. Hogg can never have had a better game in defence. Though still young, he has now played in some 30 internationals, but Bennett, Gray and Cowan haven’t much more than 20 caps between them.
Experience counts, experience of winning most of all.
In recent years when we have scored good tries at Twickenham it has usually been when the match was already lost. Mark Bennett’s try, with its show of the ball and a sidestep reminiscent of the great Jim Renwick, levelled the scores, after Laidlaw’s touchline conversion, at 7-7, and at half-time it was conceivable that we would go on to win. The game remained a close contest till the last couple of minutes, and a close contest against what looks like the best England team since the World Cup winning one of 2003.
We have beaten England a couple of times at Murrayfield since then – and played them to a draw there too – but these successes have been made possible only by a tremendous defensive effort. Vern Cotter is constructing a team that will win matches by scoring more tries than the opposition. But to do that we need better luck with regard to injuries than we have had these last few weeks. England can afford to lose half-a-dozen first choice players, and Stuart Lancaster can still put out a winning team. Vern Cotter can enjoy no such luxury. Incidentally, till Samson Lee, Gethin Jenkins and Jamie Roberts all went off injured on Saturday, Warren Gatland has had few injury worries, and Wales have now won three of their four matches.
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