Given the rising expectations which have been reflected in full houses at Murrayfield, Scotland’s November results – won two, lost two – may be reckoned a bit disappointing. There is all the more reason therefore to try to assess the record coldly.
Defeat in Cardiff was not unexpected. Our away record remains poor. That said, winning away in the Six Nations is always hard and, though this wasn’t of course a match in the tournament, it was likely to be a difficult game, all the more so because, being played outside the IRB’s window, Scotland were without three or four likely first-choice players and also missing the injured Stuart Hogg. Nevertheless, the match was closer than the 21-10 score might suggest.
The other defeat, by six points to South Africa, was more disappointing because we played much better and lots of people thought we should have won. Like most close matches, it turned on two or three things: a failure to field a South African restart which led to a penalty, and perhaps the decision near the end to go for a five-metre line-out in hope of a mauling try rather than kicking a goal. But there were many good things in the match, not least the brilliance of the first Scottish try and the impudent intelligence of the second one. If, on balance, South Africa just deserved their win, this was because for the most part they were in control at the breakdown. This was a match in which we missed the injured John Barclay’s experience, skill and judgment.
The two wins were very different. Scotland were brilliant against Fiji, uncertain and awkward against Argentina. Anyone tempted to discount the Fiji performance on the out-of-date and insulting “it was only Fiji” judgment looked pretty silly last Saturday when Fiji soundly defeated France. The Argentina match was a poor spectacle, only partly on account of the rain. Somehow Scotland never got into top gear. The Argentine half-backs kicked better than our ones and Nicolas Sanchez’s Garryowens had Hogg and Blair Kinghorn in difficulties in the first half. In contrast, our kicking from hand was usually too deep to trouble the receiver. On the other hand, our defence was excellent and Sean Maitland’s try a very good one, made possible by Greig Laidlaw’s immediate response to Hogg’s call for the ball to be moved right rather than left.
One or two players new, or almost new, to international rugby made their mark, notably Exeter’s Sam Skinner and Edinburgh’s Jamie Ritchie. Skinner looked more at home at lock than on the flank, but one wonders whether his best position might be No 8. There may not be a suitable opportunity to try him there till the World Cup warm-up matches and, in any case, the now vastly experienced Ryan Wilson and the more than promising Matt Fagerson are probably, if fit, likely to be the two in contention for the position when we open the Six Nations against Italy. As for Ritchie, he did enough to suggest that he may become Barclay’s understudy and likely successor as the breakdown expert.
Elsewhere, reigning Six Nations champions Ireland confirmed that they are still getting better and better. The style of rugby that Joe Schmidt has instilled in them isn’t always exhilarating but it is mighty effective. They beat New Zealand more completely in my view than the score suggests. They have remarkable strength in depth, especially in the back-row of the scrum, and it’s very hard to imagine that anyone will beat them in Dublin any time soon. Happily, we don’t have to go there this season, but beating this Ireland team at Murrayfield would be a considerable achievement, a bigger one than last season’s Calcutta Cup win.
England are improving – which is to say they seem to have steadied the ship after their dismal first six months of the year. There was much pre-November moaning about the length of their injury list but this seems to have proved one of these blessings in disguise, for Eddie Jones was almost compelled by circumstances to field a faster and more skilful back-row than he had previously done. All the same, their autumn has been an odd one. They beat South Africa by one point in a match they should have lost, and lost by one point to New Zealand in a game they deserved to win. For 40 minutes they were outplayed and embarrassed by Japan – to the huge amusement of many. Finally they eventually overwhelmed an exhausted and despondent Australian side, but only after getting the run of the green, especially when the Wallabies were denied what should have been a penalty try. Australia themselves are in a bad way, unable even to record their customary win against Wales who, in contrast, had a satisfying if unspectacular November.
As for the Big Question – is the All Blacks’ dominance of the world game coming to an end? – the only sensible answer is that it is under threat now for the first time in ten years. Which is certainly interesting.