New Zealand's struggles make us think to what Scotland could do - and that we underestimated Argentina
Things may look different by ten o’clock this Saturday morning, but if Argentina have just beaten New Zealand again, they will surely be challenging Ireland for the “Best of Summer 2022” unofficial (indeed non-existent) title.
They may not bring it off. New Zealand did after all have the better of them for much of last week’s match, leading well into the second half and scoring two tries to one. But then, under pressure, the All Blacks gave away penalty after penalty, and victory slipped out of their hands.
Some say “serves them right”, and add that this is what happens when referees no longer treat them with the deference they received in Richie McCaw’s time. Something in that, perhaps, though arguably referees were puzzled and uncertain rather than deferential. Wayne Barnes has remarked that McCaw played so cleverly on the brink of illegality that it was hard to decide whether he was still just within the law. Well, we can’t argue about that. Our own star flankers – Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson and Rory Darge – on their best days at least, flirt McCaw-style with what is lawful, perplex or tease referees, and we are happy when they get away with it.
Evidence that the All Blacks seem no longer invincible has some of us wondering whether this autumn may at last see Scotland beating them. We have come close more than once, never closer than in November 1983 when David Johnston’s delicate grubber put the ball over the New-Zealand try-line and Jim Pollock darted up to touch down. Alas, Peter Dods’ conversion attempt from the right-hand touchline went just wide, and the match finished 25-25.
Back in the present, Argentina’s victories in The Rugby Championship make our own results and performance earlier in the summer look considerably better than they did at the time. Our disappointment was justified because we let what should have been a comfortable lead slip in the last minutes of the third Test, but we should now recognise that we under-estimated this Argentina side. They were much better than we believed and that makes the Scottish effort with a less than full-strength team also better than it seemed. Which being so leaves one wondering what in just three months’ time our best side will be.
When we started very badly in the first Test in Argentina and were seeming lethargic and at a loss, I thought our chances might improve when injury had Nicolo Sanchez, the fly-half who has so often been the architect of his team’s victories, leaving the field. Not a bit of it. Santiago Carreras, who usually plays full-back or wing for Gloucester, took over and soon made a searing break up the middle. He has shone brighter and brighter ever since, both with the boot and with ball in hand.
Criticism, not undeserved, of Scotland’s tendency to fail to gather restarts and concede penalties, may be tempered by the thought that Stuart Barnes in a paean of praise for Carreras says that he is “the best restart kicker in the game. His hang time and accuracy can be on another level to his peers.” “Hang time” is a new term for me, though whether it means that he just kicks the ball a wee bit higher or that he magically makes it hover for a moment at the top of its climb, there is no doubt that Carreras’s restart kicks have puzzled Scots and New Zealanders alike.
Well, restarts are important. One might agree with Jim Telfer – usually the sensible and safest thing to do – when he growled that the team he preferred would kick from the centre spot only once in a match, But it is very rare to keep a clean sheet , and if Scotland’s ability to deal with restarts has been notoriously poor, our own restarts haven’t often asked questions, certainly not difficult ones. The kick often seems directed to a powerful player with a safe pair of hands – a Billy Vunipola or C J Stander – which usually means the opposition will next have some safe ball. Still, pondering this new -to me anyway – concept, it has become clear that our restarts whether taken by Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell or Blair Kinghorn rate low on “hang time”. So there ‘s a phrase for coaches: “look, lad, get to work on your hang time, mak’ sure the ba’ hovers like a hawk.”