Scotland backs not immune from flak – Duncan Hodge

Duncan Hodge, left, talks his group of players through video footage of the Ireland game. Picture: SNS/SRU
Duncan Hodge, left, talks his group of players through video footage of the Ireland game. Picture: SNS/SRU
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THE FRUSTRATION felt by the Scotland forwards after Sunday’s dispiriting Six Nations defeat to Ireland is shared by the back division but assistant coach Duncan Hodge remains confident that the players have the ability to beat England.

Hodge is remembered most famously for scoring all 19 points when Scotland defied the odds and finished the very first Six Nations tournament in 2000 with victory over England. The Scots had lost all four games up to then, but came good in the Calcutta Cup. They had shipped 44 points in Dublin in that year, and the win over England was the first in a decade, which puts last Sunday’s opening 28-6 loss against a good Ireland side now being touted as potential champions into some context.

England will arrive at Murrayfield as firm favourites, not least because their opening defeat in France ensures that they must win to retain an interest in this year’s title. Hodge has seen it all before and is not fazed. Losing first-up games is common for Scotland – they have won just once in 15 opening Six Nations weekends – and Hodge reiterated the message of forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys the previous day in stating that Scotland could only contemplate victory if they have a stronger mindset and possess sharper skills under pressure than was evident in Dublin.

Hodge said: “There was some good play, but we struggled for possession and what possession we did have we created some chances with but weren’t clinical enough to finish in the outside channels.

“We made a lot of tackle breaks and counter-attacked well with the back three but we just weren’t clinical enough and that was the difference. The frustrating thing is that that is not an accurate reflection of us as a team. Two of their tries came from when we had the ball and you’re not going to win Test matches when you give away tries like that against a team full of experienced internationals and Lions players.

“We have taken a step backwards in terms of the result,” he continued. “Some things we have improved on since last year but, in international rugby, if you do two or three things wrong, you will get heavily punished for it. Some of the stats from Sunday’s game showed that we were there, equal with Ireland, but they took chances and we lost ball at key times. And that was the game.

“The quality of player is there, it’s just performing at that level. We are a young group but we have to just grow up and deal with it. We know what the issues are and we have to just put them right. We have a game at the weekend and can’t wallow in the defeat. We have to crack on.”

Humphreys spoke candidly about the pack’s performance on Sunday, and hinted at changes for the Calcutta Cup. Glasgow flanker Chris Fusaro is expected to come into the reckoning for the openside flanker spot, with captain Kelly Brown’s position in the team under pressure Young lock Jonny Gray should at least be promoted to the bench, supplanting his elder brother, Richie.

Hooker Ross Ford is another under pressure, as are the second rows after the lineout shambles, but there are concerns that to take Ford’s scrummaging power out of the front row when Euan Murray, the tighthead, is unavailable through injury, would be asking for trouble against England..

As for the back line, Hodge would not be drawn on the coaches’ thinking but, with winger Sean Maitland ruled out through injury, there will be at least one new face. Max Evans and fit-again Tommy Seymour are vying for the jersey, with Edinburgh’s Dougie Fife pushing hard at least for the bench. Matt Scott is also in the frame to return at inside centre but Hodge admitted that there are risks in switching players in such a short week of preparation.

Hodge said: “He [Maitland] was playing well and looking sharp, so it is a blow, especially when Tim Visser is also out, but we have players who can come in and do a job, such as Tommy Seymour and Max Evans.

“Dougie has played consistently well and didn’t get as much ball last Friday night in the A game as he would have liked. But he kicks well, and has played at 13 and 15 as well, so he provides good cover. He’ll be close.

“The team is announced tomorrow and, with just six days’ preparation, especially when you’ve played away from home, you’ve got to be careful there because we don’t have the training time to change too much.”

Hodge believes that the Calcutta Cup’s unique atmosphere will help lift the team to a better display. “England are a great side, a top-quality team, but it’s great that this game has come around so quickly,” he added.

“We were disappointed and we know the people who watched in Ireland and at home will have been, too, but this is the championship. Six days to recover and you’re back out there in our first home game of the season. We’re looking for an 80-minute performance. If we make those critical errors again, we won’t win. It’s as simple as that. But we have the players with the ability to win this weekend.”