Losing to the USA last week was disappointing but not a surprise. The Americans are a tough, hard team, and we should remember that they made things difficult for Vern Cotter’s men in the last World Cup. They have an outstanding stand-off in Dublin-born A J McGinty, formerly of Connacht, now with Sale. He shone against Scotland just as his club partner Faf De Klerk has sparkled for South Africa against England. Sale indeed may have as good a half-back partnership as any club in Europe; certainly there can be few better.
If the result wasn’t a surprise, the Scottish performance was nevertheless as surprising as it was disappointing, riddled with the sort of mistakes that, one should add, bedevilled Glasgow in the last weeks of the domestic season. Some of the young players looked far from ready for international rugby – even against a second-tier country such as, for all their improvement, the USA still is. Nevertheless one shouldn’t be too critical. You must expect young players to have some shockingly bad games; it’s what they learn from the experience that matters.
Gregor Townsend has kept faith with some of those who failed to shine last week, while naming what is on paper by some way the strongest XV to take the field in this three-match tour. The return of Stuart McInally as captain is very welcome, the selection of his rival hooker, Fraser Brown, at openside flanker interesting. Some may see this as a nice example of Gregor Townsend’s eccentricity, others of his ability to think out of the box. Actually it seems reasonable to me. Brown was originally a 7, and played in that position when he came off the bench last week. In any case, apart from the fact that hookers are stuck in the front row of the scrum and required to throw the ball in to the line-out, hookers and flankers are now expected to play a very similar game, both being vital at the breakdown. Brown offers more power there than young Jamie Ritchie who starts on the bench. Hookers and flankers are both expected to carry ball deep into the defence, and Scotland need power against Argentina.
This being so, the choice of David Denton at 8 is significant, not only for this match but with an eye to next season and the World Cup. The hope is that, injury-free and given a less limited role than he had towards the end of his time at Edinburgh, Denton can at last be the free-running powerhouse he promised to be when he first played for Scotland six and a bit years ago. One would like to see him driving deep into the defence and staying on his feet in the tackle rather than going quickly to ground. In other words one would like to see him doing the sort of things that Duane Vermeulen has been doing for South Africa against England. In their two Tests, Vermeulen has been a rock in defence, a bulldozer in attack – just what we want, and need, from whoever we play at No 8.
Like Scotland, England have a chance to make amends today, even though they have already lost the series against South Africa. Their falling-away in the last six months has been remarkable, hard to account for. Once again last week they scored two good tries in the first quarter of an hour, though the second was rather gifted by some uncharacteristically feeble Springbok defence; and this time failed to score a single point in what remained of the match. There was poor decision-making, putting a penalty into touch rather than kicking for goal near the end of the first half, for instance.
Once again, however, the reasons for the defeat seemed obvious. The English forwards came off very much second best, and, finding themselves under pressure, gave away stupid penalties. Sometimes, as we all know, the risk of being penalised is worth taking. But usually it isn’t. South Africa won comfortably, even though the try-count was even; they did so because England gave their stand-off the chance to kick penalties. He missed at least once, but he kicked enough of them to take the game out of England’s reach.
His forwards having come off second-best in both Tests, Eddie Jones’s response has been to drop his stand-off, George Ford, and bring back Danny Cipriani. Go figure, as they say. Most of the little that England have done well has been sparked by Ford. So dropping him makes little sense. There has, however, been a clamour for Cipriani on social media, and it seems that Jones has yielded to it.
Meanwhile, those of us who have been indulging in the not very admirable practice of taking pleasure in our neighbour’s misfortune should remember that it won’t last for ever. England have too many good players not to emerge from this slump, and will surely have done so before we go to Twickenham in the spring.