Aidan Smith: Hogg and Russell will both be 31 come the next World Cup. It's now-or-never time for them.

It was a blustery day, Murrayfield contriving a more than decent impression of the old Hampden swirl. Sam Skinner passed to Duhan van der Merwe but the ball went marginally behind the winger who couldn’t gather. Then, a few minutes later, same part of the pitch, just below us, Chris Harris passed and this time the ball was slightly ahead of the intended recipient – Stuart Hogg sprinting as fast as he could to get there and sticking out his chunky wee arms but, ach, that one went awry as well.

Fine margins. If Scotland had scored in these moments - VDM would still have had work to do but Hoggy would’ve been a cert to have had us leading at the interval against France - then the match could have had a different outcome. I say could, because we would still have had to defend mightily to keep out a French side who don’t seem to blow up like those of old and can of course turn it on at will.

Scotland sides of old might have blamed the wind for those fluffed despatches but this one didn’t in the aftermath because Gregor Townsend’s men don’t need telling that in recent years they’ve handled the ball better in worst conditions.

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On grotty, squirty days they’ve sped it right across the pitch and back again. Accuracy and retention have been exceptional. Thrilling performances have resulted. Not so very long ago, attacks were sluggish and passes were being received in static positions, the ball having all the covetousness of a flaming saucepan. Good riddance to those grim afternoons.

One of Scotland's best moments of the Six Nations - Darcy Graham's try against Wales. Will the last two games produce anything to match it?One of Scotland's best moments of the Six Nations - Darcy Graham's try against Wales. Will the last two games produce anything to match it?
One of Scotland's best moments of the Six Nations - Darcy Graham's try against Wales. Will the last two games produce anything to match it?

So what went wrong last Saturday? Well, we must acknowledge that not everything had been absolutely right beforehand. England controlled large parts of the Calcutta Cup clash only to turn flaccid in the final quarter. Scotland controlled the first half in Cardiff but then Dan Biggar said: “We’ll take charge now. It’ll be attritional, lots of kicking, but we’ll squeeze you out.”

So there would have been an urgency against Les Bleus with the reputation of the opposition exacerbating nerves, prompting haste and rushed moves. Maybe if it had been Finn Russell setting up Hogg - the captain has copped flak but Harris’s pass was poor and the centre didn’t need to attempt a worldy all the way out wide - then the try would have been scored. Ah, but maybe not. After the Wales defeat, pundits were insisting Russell rarely has two quiet games in a row. Well, he did. Fine margins, Finn margins.

Russell is being targeted by our opponents and Van der Merwe is being targeted and after his electric breaks in the Six Nations thus far, Darcy Graham will be targeted from here on in. This is what happens when teams turn dangerous, as Scotland have. The trick is to be able to counteract the counteracting. Then good sides can become great ones.

Scotland, right at the moment, can’t get there. Maybe - whisper it - this group never will. Hogg will be 31 when the next World Cup comes round and Russell will turn that age midway through the tournament, should Scotland still be involved and improve on last time by getting out of the groups.

Jonny Wilkinson was 32 when he retired from international rugby and Dan Carter was 33. Ireland are still sticking the 36-year-old Johnny Sexton back together after games but it’s clear that Scotland’s twin talismen are entering the crucial now-or-never phase of their careers.

Both have come in for criticism over the last two games. With the exception of Graham vs Wales, neither defeat will figure in the retrospective DVDs of anyone in dark blue, but Hogg and Russell have set high standards for themselves and so will always be subject to rigorous scrutiny.

Such as: Hogg being judged “not the complete player” and Russell being labelled “pathetic”. Was this some Twitter nutter last Saturday night, five pints to the good? Actually, former Ireland international Shane Horgan, who may well be auditioning for the role of the “outspoken, fearless” voice of TV punditry for the oval ball game, rugby’s version of his countryman Roy Keane.

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How long ago was it that Russell’s crossfield kicks were being eulogised as being worthy of poetry? Just four weeks ago, in this Six Nations. For sure after the win over England he was poor with the boot against Wales and France and there’s this sense that opposing teams believe they’ve worked him out and know how he can be neutralised. It’s up to Russell to hit back with a cunning alternative stratagem, although any plan B for Scotland cannot solely be down to him.

Jimmy Johnstone and Charlie Cooke didn’t sprinkle stardust every time they played with the round ball and neither did Townsend who’s not beaten Ireland as head coach so the game in Dublin in a fortnight would be a good time to start. Provided Scotland have also defeated Italy that would make it three wins for this championship, a familiar outcome as we strive for the formula which will deliver more.

Those Murrayfield gusts last Saturday could not quite remove an unpleasant stench. “They have got to shut up,” Matt Williams said of Scotland in advance of the game. “Until they live the talk, they are just making fools of themselves.” Lest it be forgotten, Williams’ tenure in charge was the worst of the modern era. He emptied Murrayfield - certainly of hope. The team don’t play in that stodgy way anymore. Give me Russell’s daring over dull conservatism and I’m happy to wait for his next flash of brilliance (as long as it’s not too long). On their day this Scotland are a joy to watch. A few more of those days would be wonderful.



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