Allan Massie: Reasons to be cheerful and fearful for Scotland

Mark Bennett celebrates his try in the closing minutes of the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final match against Australia. Picture: Jane Barlow
Mark Bennett celebrates his try in the closing minutes of the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final match against Australia. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The World Cup went better than one might have expected. Admittedly, it would have been a disappointment if we hadn’t reached the quarter-final, and a calamitous first half against Samoa made elimination all too likely. But the team rallied and then came closer to beating Australia and reaching a semi-final place for the first time since 1991 than all but the most optimistic of supporters thought possible. But then we shot ourselves in the foot by failing to secure our own line-out ball, and in the subsequent confusion the referee Craig Joubert gave Australia a penalty, and that was that. It was annoying that his decision was wrong, but these things happen.

Now we’re in the new year and the Six Nations is almost upon us. The question is whether Vern Cotter’s team can maintain their improvement. Last season autumn promise quickly withered. Pundits who had predicted that Scotland would be the dark horse of the Six Nations ended up looking stupid. There was some good play but there were no good results. Will it be different this year?

There is reason to be hopeful, but also reason to doubt. Some players – Finn Russell and Tommy Seymour at Glasgow, David Denton after his move to Bath, for instance – don’t yet seem to have recovered from the intensity of the World Cup, and have only a few weeks in which to do so.

Post-RWC blues are not a Scottish monopoly. Neither Jonny Sexton in Ireland nor George Ford in England has been at his best in the last few weeks. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that, by February, the likes of Russell and Seymour will have recovered their elan.

One of the most agreeable surprises of the World Cup was the effectiveness of our set scrum. It was stiffened by the inclusion of W P Nel while, at loose-head, Alasdair Dickinson put the scrummaging problems of his early international career behind him. A front row of Dickinson, Ross Ford and Nel fear nothing but the referee’s interpretation of laws. Behind them, the brothers Gray will yield to nobody.

Like many, I had my doubts about the propriety of selecting John Hardie on his arrival from New Zealand and before he had played a single match here in Scotland. Like everybody – surely? – I’ve changed my mind. More exactly Hardie has changed it for me. His performances for Edinburgh as well as Scotland have been outstanding, and he looks like the 7 we’ve been seeking for years. So, propriety be hanged; we’re delighted to have him.

No team can be successful in international rugby today without forward power. It wasn’t always like that. In what became known as Wilson Shaw’s match – the Calcutta Cup of 1938 – it was reckoned that England had four or five times as much ball as Scotland; yet Scotland won 21-16, scoring five tries to one. But those were the days when the principal duty of the forwards was to provide ball for the backs. So the ball was heeled from the set-scrum which wasn’t seen as a means of winning a penalty as it so often is today.

Still, if we achieve parity up front, we have the most dangerous back division we’ve had since the days of Andy Irvine, Jim Renwick, David Johnston and John Rutherford. When did we last have four centres – Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett, Matt Scott and Peter Horne – all capable of scoring tries against any opposition? Or a pair of halves as accomplished as Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw? Or a back three like today’s, selected from Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour, Sean Lamont and Tim Visser, all proven try-scorers. Give that back division a dry day and good ball, and sparks will fly.

Vern Cotter now has an exciting team, one we can reasonably and confidently expect to score tries. So all we need are results. That’s easier said than done, because our rivals have their own reasons to be hopeful, and we have away games in Dublin, Cardiff and Rome.

To end on a different note; it’s sad that injury has forced Roddy Grant to retire. He has been a tremendous player for Edinburgh, time and again an outstanding one. Like many, I find it inexplicable that he has never played for Scotland. Indeed his repeated omission has been a crying shame. He must be the best uncapped player of his generation. One thing is certain however: he has never let either his club or the game of rugby down, and there aren’t that many players of whom that can be said.