Six Nations blog: Time to pick up pace in France

Players look looked bemused after another penalty is awarded against Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Players look looked bemused after another penalty is awarded against Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Apologies for having been tardy in posting anything new on the blog for a while but I, like most of the poor people who witnessed last Saturday’s test at Murrayfield, have been in therapy.

One round to go and Scott Johnson has already delivered more than most folk predicted at the start of the season…two wins. The Aussie has a reputation as a maverick and now it’s time for him to prove everyone right.

Scotland coach Scott Johnson pictured at training. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Scotland coach Scott Johnson pictured at training. Picture: Ian Rutherford

His team has won two matches but they have yet to play well. I know, I know. You can point the finger and call me negative but a journos’ job is to strip the emotion out of the equation and try and spot some grains of truth that are left behind.

Scotland have been poor all season. The boys in blue took their chances well against Italy and Ireland but that is that. They have been beaten every which way by just about every team in the tourney. The forwards that were winning possession and territory stats a year or so ago are now so far behind they are almost out of sight. The giant front five lack dynamism, energy and, let’s be honest, a little savvy.

You don’t win at Stade de France by being conservative so here’s what Johnson should do. Select Grant Gilchrist and John Barclay or Richie Vernon in place of the admirable but one-paced Jim Hamilton and Rob Harley. I’d think about dropping Euan Murray for Geoff Cross too but against the French that may be foolhardy. And for goodness sakes get Tom Heathcote on the bench now if you want him to be any use to you at the next World Cup (the one we are targeting to win if you remember).

Then play at pace.

Also Johnson should select Henry Pyrgos in place of Greig Laidlaw because the Glasgow man is a greater threat with the ball in hand and he kicks from hand better too. Duncan Weir is can take kicks at goal.

Laidlaw is a great organiser, a regular little general and very much in the French mould, but Pyrgos is much quicker over the ground.

Then play at pace.

I’d like to see an outside centre at outside centre in place of Sean Lamont who is another defensive rather than attacking player but, the enforced absence of Nick De Luca, the options are few. Max Evans does not look particularly interested, Alex Grove is not in the 23, Mark Bennett is one for the future and Peter Horne is probably short a yard of pace for test level 13.

I’d like to see a traditional Scottish game plan of some honest harum scarum stuff, make the breakdown a mess, get into the French faces in defence - especially Fredo Michalak who remains the weakest link, and mix it up in attack. Kick high, kick long, attack the blind, attack the open, get the back three involved more because it worked for George North, give Pyrgos the freedom to tap and go at penalties. NO. Insist that the scrummy takes quick tap penalties and then ask the entire team to….PLAY AT PACE.

Given where Scotland are at the moment it is better for them to lose by

5 tries to 3 than to lose by 15-9 with all the points coming from kicks.

Scrumaholics and reputation

My name is Iain and I am a scrumaholic. There, I feel better now for getting that off my chest. I can’t help myself.

I know it can be a an occasional mess but it is the only part of the game where the players test their strength, technique and, I dare say, their ability to hoodwink the referee on a regular basis. It’s importance is largely psychological and in rugby that is more than half the battle.

The French front may just be the best in world rugby. At their specially built training centre at Marcoussis just to the South West of Paris the French forwards train against the world’s most sophisticated scrumming machine in the world. It has an almost infinite number of ankles the operator can adopt and, get this, it pushes back against the human scrum. How good is that?

The answer is too good for England’s much vaunted front row. You have to think Dylan Hartley was promoted to the starting team exactly for his scrimmaging power but still the French were too good. They kept the ball at Louis Picamoles feet for the first couple of scrums and slowly but surely they got the nudge on England. Warren Gatland probably had Dan Cole pencilled into his test team, now a few doubts have been sewn in his mind. As the game progressed England got better and better in the scrum until they were dominating the final quarter every bit as much as France bossed the first twenty.

Scotland did the exact same to Ireland and you could hear the gurgle of expectation from the crowd as they realised that the Scottish big men had thrown down a challenge. The same thing happened. Slowly but surely the Irish were nudged back. Interestingly the Irish commentators and journalists all fingered Tom Court on the loosehead because he has the reputation as a poor scrummager but Mike Ross fared no better on the other side of the scrum against Ryan Grant. Perhaps the Glasgow prop had read the same Irish papers that I did because their pundits didn’t rate him all that highly. Maybe they do now?

Reputation is all in the front row jungle although the good name of the “Baron” Lo Cicero and his brother in arms for so long Martin Castro took a fearful kick in the pants against Wales who destroyed the Italian scrum. You fear for Italy at Murrayfield after that humiliation in Rome.

So if reputation is all what will Scott Johnson do a week on Saturday?

My guess is that he will recall Euan Murray and ignore the fact that Geoff Cross not only had his best game for Scotland in the tight but his tackle count was right up there with the breakaways too.

Who ever said life was supposed to be fair?

23/02/13: Scotland can take down Ireland

LIKE most of you I have been mulling the weekend’s matches for a good few days now trying to work out what will happen.

I honestly had no idea about Glasgow/Ulster last night but Gregor’s men would have won a whole lot easier of Peter Horne had brought his kicking boots along. He missed with one conversion in front of the posts that you could have back-heeled over the bar as fans of Mark Ring will testify!

Here is how I think things will pan out over the weekend and yes, obviously, you are welcome to use what follows as evidence of idiocy and beat me over the head with it on Monday morning. It might be worth pointing out that I was the “expert” predicting a Grand Slam for France this season and yes, I meant wins rather than losses.

Italy V Wales

Wales will expect but Italy thought that the Murrayfield humiliation was a thing of the past and they won’t lie down and die with or without Sergio Parisse. If the Welsh forwards can get some decent possession they have the backs to score tries but Italy’s big men don’t get pushed around by many and certainly not in the Olympic Stadium. Wales by five.

England V France

Until Stuart Lancaster took over you would have looked for a ferocious French backlash to cause England all sorts of grief but England are well prepared by the current coaching staff and they will know what to expect. France will be very much better because they can’t be very much worse and PSA has finally stopped playing silly buggers with selection.

England by 10.

Scotland V Ireland

In the good old, bad old days Ireland couldn’t beg or buy a win at Murrayfield for any money and now they haven’t lost a championship match there since 2001. Ouch. With his job on the line Declan Kidney has lost his innate conservative streak and handed debuts to Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall. This is a huge gamble. If it pays off Kidney is there till RWC’15. If not the Grand Slam coach could be gone at the end of the season. This is drama of Shakespearian proportions. Scotland by 3 (and only because they have a better kicker).

20/02/13: Jackson pick is shock of the day

These days players are rarely handed a test debut in the white hot glare of the Six Nations. Instead they are eased into the test arena in a more comfortable environment of the autumn tests or the summer tour. Not so with this Ireland XV that boasts not one debutant but two and, the real surprise, they are playing side by side in the Irish midfield.

Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall may go on to become household names and rugby superstars but right now the a genuine superstar cuts a forlorn figure on the Irish bench. Ronan O’Gara goes a long way back with Declan Kidney but the relationship has been strained ever since the national coach gave Johnny Sexton the nod ahead of his own Munsterman. The 35 year old O’Gara is beginning to feel the hot breath of Old Father Time himself on his shoulder and while he rages against the dying of the light it is surely time, two years ahead of the next World Cup, to be bedding in Sexton’s understudy now rather than any later. O’Gara, and I think this is to his credit, is perhaps the only one in the whole of Ireland who does not agree.

Again Kidney has surprised many in not going for Leinster’s Ian Madigan (and Sexton’s understudy at club level) who is highly regarded.

Scotland are sure to test the 21 year old midfield pairing every which way they can think off on Sunday afternoon with Visser and Lamomt to the fore. Ireland openside flanker Sean O’Brien is going to be working overtime to lend them some protection from the inside while Brian O’Driscoll does a similar task from the wider channel.

It promises to be a fascinating match within the match.

14/02/13: Irish injuries unfair, but welcome for Scots

My perverted logic went along these lines. Since Scotland are shorn of Euan Murray on the Sabbath it seems only right and proper that his direct opponent Healy should also miss the tie so evening things up.

Anyway Healy’s stupid stamp thoroughly deserved a card at the time and in the second half defensive effort against Wales the referee could have easily sent half the Irish forwards to the sin bin.

That argument may not stand up to rigorous questioning but I am on even shakier ground when it comes to Johnny Sexton and Simon Zebo. I have no excuses here and I am delighted that two such influential players will miss the match. I suppose, in mitigation, Scotland would have picked Nick De Luca at thirteen and he is also injured.

To put it bluntly Scotland are at a fragile state, out of intensive care but certainly not out of danger and perfectly capable of flat-lining again should results go against them. Confidence and momentum are all and, for the first time since 2006, Scotland have the wind at their backs in this tournament. This next game against Ireland will prove whether this Scotland team have turned the corner of whether last Saturday’s success was a flash in the pan, a one off, a little like Italy’s 37-17 win on the same ground back in 2007.

Ireland have had plenty of success in recent years. Scotland need to back up that magnificent display against Italy with another against many people’s pre-tournament favourites if not mine. (Naturally enough, I plumped for France). If Sean O’Brien could get the measles and Brian O’Driscoll would walk into a lamp post I’d be a happy man if not, I’m sorry to say, a fair minded one.

07/02/2013: Why do Scotland post two tighthead props on the bench?

It’s a common enough question with an obvious enough answer.

The back up at loosehead is not up to scratch. Ally Dickinson is a Billy Whizz around the field but his tight work is not international standard and Gordon Reid has impressed in recent weeks, especially against Northampton in the Heineken Cup, but he needs more time before being thrown into the deep end.

And so to Jon Welsh who, in the corresponding fixture one year ago, was called into service at literally five minutes notice after Allan Jacobsen pulled up in the warm up. Welsh not only was making his debut but he was making it against the mighty Martin Castroviovanni. Scotland were walloped on the day but Welsh proved one of the few performances to be proud of as the scrum was rock solid.

He has had injury issues this season but those in the know say that Welsh is destined for the tighthead rather than the loosehead side of the scrum. Some have him earmarked as Euan Murray’s natural successor because 1/ Moray Low has not fulfilled his huge potential and 2/ Geoff Cross struggles against the very best on the tight.

Obviously Welsh can do a shift on either side of the scrum but, if he is deemed Murray’s successor, then that leaves the loosehead side of the scrum undermanned. The last time Ryan Grant was injured Andy Robinson was forced to go to the English Championship for Kyle Traynor who played against Tonga and we all know how that finished.

If Welsh is Murray’s eventual replacement at tighthead surely it makes sense to ask Geoff Cross to switch over to loosehead. He has always looked more of a 1 than a 3 to me, smallish but strong and quick, and Scotland need someone to back up Ryan Grant until such time that Edinburgh’s Alex Allan comes through to fulfil that role.

04/02/13: Scotland face tough Italian job

SCOTLAND were bashed by the English at Twickenham and now they have a resurgent and confident Italian side determined to enjoy their best season for years after that brilliant win on Sunday.

I still think Scotland can and will beat Italy, especially if the weather improves between now and the weekend.

Scott Johnson hasn’t got a lot of options to chop and change the side, even presuming he wants to, despite the A-team morale boosting victory over a strong Saxons team in Newcastle. I reckon that the coach will promote Rob Harley into the number six shirt vacated by Ally Strokosch. Harley is a work horse and the make-up of the backrow needs one to allow Johnnie Beattie the freedom to roam. (If Johnson doesn’t opt for Harley then he should go for Ryan Wilson who won a man of the match award for his effort on Friday).

I’d swap Al Kellock for Jim Hamilton in the second row. Kellock is the better lineout option and I still think that Hamilton, so effective at club level, struggles to get up to speed with the pace of the modern international game. Finally Dougie Hall may give way to Ross Ford depending upon his knees.

I have a feeling that the back line may just be kept intact on the basis that they didn’t get much front foot ball on Saturday and still managed two tries. I’d be tempted to stick Tom Heathcote on the bench and bring him on at half time if Ruaridh Jackson is struggling. I’d also be tempted to put Saracens’ 6’ 3” back Duncan Taylor beside him since he can cover wing/centre and he took his try in Newcastle quite brilliantly.

02/02/13: Ford’s Bath move should pave way for Heathcote

George Ford, the 19-year-old Leicester flyhalf has signed for Bath for next season where his dad Mike is the defence coach.

It’s an interesting move as Ford has finally lost patience waiting in line behind Toby Flood. He gets almost no game time at the Tigers, which is the main reason he has quoted for moving to Bath.

“So what?” you ask.

Well doesn’t it now make sense for Tom Heathcote to move to Edinburgh? The Scotland cap has another year on his Bath contract (after this season) but he too needs game time to learn his trade on the job rather than splinters in his backside as he makes way for Ford. Edinburgh don’t have a stand out fly-half and Heathcote looks the real deal in the limited outings he has had for Bath to date.

If he moved to Edinburgh it would mean that the two pro-teams would field Scotland’s best two fly-halfs with Duncan Weir and Gregor Hunter offering strong competition/support off the bench.

Am I the only one who thinks this is a tap in?

01/02/13: England will look to defence to overcome Scotland

IT’S an England team without too many weaknesses even in the absence of Manu Tuilagi. It’s not a like-for-like swap, because Billy Twelvetrees comes in at 12 with Brad Barritt moving one wider, but his replacement may prove to be a better long-term bet than the big hitting Samoan.

Twelvetrees (he took his mother’s maiden name to prevent it from dying out) is the complete midfielder. He is big and powerful, a strong defender and a good carrier. He has the decision making capability to do a turn at ten if needs be and he has the rounded kicking game of a traditional Kiwi second five eighth. I fancy he may be kitted up in red rather than white this summer if the Six Nations goes well for him. In Barritt and Tuilagi England have two centres that are too similar. Twelvetrees brings a different dimension, which is why Stuart Lancaster has risked handing him a debut in a tricky looking Calcutta Cup match.

England will look to their defence to win them this game, at least for the first 60 minutes of it. Their defence is their most potent offence. Scotland can expect Farrell/Twelvetrees/Barritt to be in their face all afternoon, desperate to make tackles beyond the gain line. Once that happens the defending side are on the front foot. Once the side in possession go backwards in two or three phases they will inevitably lose patience and kick the ball away. Job done.

Scotland need patience, they require an accurate kicking game (1/ long and 2/ just in behind the rush defence) and they need to attack the fringes of the breakdown with one out rugby as well as pick and drives through the middle. Most importantly the Scots need to take ball the flat to the gain line and at speed.

If the Scottish first receiver catches the ball deep and static they are goosed. If it happens often, the Scots can kiss this match goodbye.

30/01/2013: Scotland’s Calcutta Cup selection a gamble

SO Scott Johnson is a gambling man and, since Scotland have little to lose, why not you might ask?

Admittedly he has played safe with Dougie Hall at hooker since the Scots can’t afford any hiccups at the sidelines but at scrumhalf the squad boasts two players who have between them made one international start for Scotland.

Greig Laidlaw has come off the bench twice at scrumhalf, as has Henry Pyrgos but the Glasgow man wins the “Experience Stakes” by a short nose thanks to his one and only start against Tonga in Aberdeen…and we all know how that ended.

Actually Pyrgos played pretty well that day and one break in the first half should have led to a score if the ball had been moved wide to the right. Johnson will likely bring him on late in the game if Scotland are trailing and ask the livewire to take advantage of some tiring legs to spark Scotland into life with his trademark snipes around the breakdown.

No place for Rory Lawson, which is a surprise. I know Johnson is looking to the future but Lawson’s 31 years and 31 caps worth of experience in such a key position might yet come in handy at Twickenham.

• Scotland on Sunday rugby writer Iain Morrison will be blogging throughout the Six Nations