Neither of the Australian Michaels – Cheika or Hooper – made the red card given to their prop an excuse for their heavy defeat by Scotland. This wasn’t only gentlemanly and in the spirit of the game. It was also sensible. Of course you are at a disadvantage when you lose a player for half of a match, but there are plenty of examples of 14 men beating 15. C J Stander was sent off a little more than a quarter into Ireland’s first Test against South Africa last year; Ireland went on to win. Racing 92’s scrum-half, Maxime Machenaud was red-carded early in the Top 14 final two seasons ago; Racing won.
As a general rule I would say you can usually afford to lose a forward rather than a back but, of course, it depends on how you respond. In the Racing case the coach sent on their replacement scrum-half and took off a forward, thus minimising disruption. In contrast, when Stuart Hogg was sent off in Cardiff in 2014 the interim Scottish coach Scott Johnson made no such substitution. The Scottish defence system fell apart, and we were hammered.
Scotland won so handsomely on Saturday, not because they had a man advantage in the second half, but because they outpaced Australia, and were more alert to seize opportunities, quicker in thought and action. We used a lot of players in the three matches, while losing several to the treatment room and missing others ruled out before the squad came together. Yet I suspect that Gregor Townsend may now have a pretty clear idea of what his ideal match day squad might be.
Saturday was exhilarating. The list of comparable victories assembled by Duncan Smith the other day evoked happy memories – while it may have surprised some younger supporters. Saturday’s game lacked the intense drama of the Grand Slam-winning matches in 1984 and 1990, if only because there was less at stake. It was perhaps most like the 1982 win in Cardiff, triggered off by Roger Baird’s audacious run out of defence that led to Jim Calder’s try. That day, too, it seemed in the second half that Scotland might score every time they had the ball in their hands.
Of course sensible people have been quick to point out that the Six Nations tournament is different, tension being higher, defence harder to penetrate. The same sensible folk have recalled, in glass half-empty style, that we’ve known hopes raised in November, then dashed in February and March, the tournament that followed the 2015 World Cup being a case in point. This is true, but if one is honest, the heart-breaking last minute quarter-final loss to Australia, followed some decidedly average performances, among them a heavy defeat by South Africa and a snatched victory against Samoa. Guided by Vern Cotter and now by Gregor Townsend, this Scotland side has moved on a lot since then. You have the feeling, which we haven’t had for almost 30 years, that it is capable of beating anybody – if things go right.
Qualification is necessary. It was good to win in Australia in June, but our away record in the Six Nations doesn’t inspire confidence. Of course everybody finds away wins difficult in the Six Nations. England’s Grand Slam hopes, or expectations, were shattered in Dublin last season. We have to go to Cardiff and Dublin and one victory from these two matches would be a considerable achievement.
And then of course England come to Murrayfield. Last year at Twickenham was a day for tears, even though, for any neutral observer, it was a comedy of Scottish errors, a day when just about everything that could go wrong went very wrong. Admittedly that was at Twickenham and we almost always have a chance of beating them at Murrayfield. We haven’t however done so in brilliant attacking style for a very long time, not indeed since 1986. That year England came north believing, as Bill McLaren said early in his commentary, that they had a Grand Slam team, and went home licking their wounds after suffering a 33-6 drubbing. It’s true we scored only three tries (a try was then worth four points) while Gavin Hastings kicked three conversions and five penalties, but we had run them ragged well before the end. It was a day of undiluted joy such as we haven’t often known against the Auld Enemy.
Still, one shouldn’t get ahead of oneself, for there’s an awful lot of rugby to be played before the Six Nations. But these three November internationals have not only been a delight, they have also demonstrated that we have more players capable of performing at the highest level than – I should say – ever before. If you doubt that, draw up a XV of players who either didn’t feature or featured only very late in a match as replacements this autumn, and you will find you have a team you might be quite happy to see taking the field for Scotland in the spring.