This is still a fairly young Scotland team but there’s an air of maturity about them, evidenced in a refusal to be carried away by their improved performance and results. Jonny Gray says they’ll have to get better to have a chance of beating England. Tommy Seymour remarks that they have played a good first half against Ireland and a good second half against Wales, but not yet a good 80 minutes. These don’t sound to me like modest disclaimers, part of a PR exercise, rather more like an honest appraisal of where we are. There are stars in this Scottish team, but there are also inexperienced players – Huw Jones, Ali Price, Zander Fagerson and Hamish Watson – who look at home on the international field, while Ryan Wilson, Fraser Brown and Gordon Reid have achieved more than one might have thought likely a couple of years ago, much more in Wilson’s case.
Then on Sunday we had comedy at Twickenham where Eddie Jones was outwitted by Italy’s Irish coach Conor O’Shea and took it badly. Of course, his ridiculous suggestion that it hadn’t been a true game of rugby and spectators should ask for their money back may have been a red herring intended to divert criticism from a pretty shaky first-half performance by his team. Be that as it may, his own criticism of Italy’s no-ruck ploy made him appear ungracious and stupid.
Several people have pointed out that Italy are not the first team to have tried this. It’s not going to catch on except occasionally so there’s no need to fiddle with the laws to prohibit it. It’s like the refusal to engage in a maul when the opposition wins a lineout – something that may work once or twice as a surprise tactic but, which, when rumbled, is quite easy to counter. At Twickenham, when Danny Care found Sergio Parisse standing between him and George Ford, he could have run into the space vacated by Parisse or kicked. Alternatively, he might have had one of his forwards pick up the ball and run. Repeating this would eventually have compelled the Italians to ruck when play reached their 22 and threatened their tryline.
What was extraordinary was the time it took England to respond to the tactic. One has seen many comic things on the rugby field, but the sight of Dylan Hartley and James Haskell looking thoroughly bemused as they asked Raimond Poite what they could do about it and met with the polite reply, “I’m the referee, not your coach”, takes the biscuit.
The Irish flanker, Sean O’Brien, says that Ireland would have solved the problem quickly: “Stick it up your jumper.” He may have been winding England up in preparation for their visit to Dublin in a fortnight by suggesting that they are bears of very little brain, but he was surely right. Dean Richards or Lawrence Dallaglio would have sorted things out after the first no-ruck. Perhaps Eddie Jones runs such a tight ship that players are discouraged from thinking for themselves. Some coaches are like that. A certain Scotland coach reputedly once ticked off a player who had departed from the gameplan, telling him: “I don’t care if it came off, it wasn’t what you were supposed to do.”
I wondered why Haskell was involved in that conversation with Monsieur Poite. Isn’t it only the captain who is supposed to speak with the referee or seek clarification from him? Perhaps Haskell’s involvement was permissible, both players being so evidently baffled by the Italian tactic. There was certainly no sign that they were trying to influence the referee. That couldn’t be said of the behaviour of the Welsh halves, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb, at Murrayfield. They were lucky that John Lacey tolerated their antics. I doubt if their compatriot Nigel Owens would have done so. “Ten metres back,” he would have said, “and speak to me like that again and you’ll be off.” Referees really have to take a strict line on complaining and dissenting. Not enough of them do.
As thoughts already turn to the Calcutta Cup, two questions present themselves. Finn Russell kicked seven goals from seven attempts against Wales. Will he – can he – kick as well again? At Twickenham, Owen Farrell missed four or five shots at goal. Will he – can he possibly – kick as badly again? A close match may turn on the answer to these questions.