IT’S about time. Scotland have performed creditably against more highly-ranked teams since Vern Cotter took over as coach, losing narrowly to the All Blacks last November and again to France last week. Tomorrow at BT Murrayfield they need to give firm evidence of that apparent progress under the New Zealander by upsetting the odds to get the better of Wales and claim a first win in this year’s RBS Six Nations Championship.
As forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys pointed out this week, the two nations are at contrasting stages of their evolution. Wales are seasoned, mature and confident despite that unexpected defeat by England last week, while Scotland, for all that they have a few old warriors in their ranks, are in the early stages of their development as a squad.
Having said that, there is no predetermined speed at which a team grows. This Scotland side may still exhibit a few rough edges, but they are capable of learning fast, and have the firepower to secure what would be a memorable victory.
It is simple in theory to say what they need to do – maintain the attacking verve they displayed in Paris while cutting down on the penalty count – but, of course, that is easier said than done. All the same, the Scots have certainly come a long way since the last time they met Wales, when, in their last game before Cotter took over, they lost 51-3 in Cardiff a year ago.
That match, in which Stuart Hogg was red-carded midway through the first half, will be in the forefront of the team’s minds when they take the field tomorrow, but Cotter warned that they will have to regard it with a certain detachment rather than going all out to erase a humiliating memory. “They do have a recollection of this game, and they’ll be using it solely and uniquely to stay focused and concentrated as long as possible in what will be a very tight contest,” the coach explained yesterday.
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“So it’s not focused on revenge. We’re focused on energy and what we can do ourselves. The idea is to have no regrets. We prepare as best as possible, execute as best as possible.”
Whether Scotland win, lose or draw, it is inconceivable that they will perform in such an abject manner again, at least for as long as Cotter is at the helm.
He has got them doing the simple things better, in the lineout for example, but has also encouraged them to be more adventurous. As we saw in Paris last week, backs such as Mark Bennett and Finn Russell as well as Hogg now offer a genuine attacking threat, and, as long as the pack achieves something close to parity, we can have a realistic expectation that those players will get a couple of tries.
That is something we could only dream of not so long ago.
Edinburgh centre Matt Scott, who has been out of the squad with injuries for the past year but returns to the bench tomorrow, has looked on from outside with a mixture of envy and admiration at the way Cotter has generated confidence in his players. “The squad has moved on a lot, and in terms of the way we’re playing and the confidence in the group we’re in a different place now,” Scott said.
“I’ve had the benefit of leaving Scotland and coming back now, and I’ve seen a massive change in the way we’re playing and the whole philosophy and style of the group. Things are moving in the right direction.
“Vern’s not really a prescriptive coach. He doesn’t play rugby by numbers. He gives you a structure and expects you to do your homework – to analyse how we should be playing and things like that.
“We’ve definitely got a bit more l eeway, I think. Also he just says ‘Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and try things’, which I think is an important philosophy. Even from coaching kids, that should be the philosophy – don’t be scared to try things.
“Sometimes in professional rugby you can get caught up in playing with a lot of structure and playing safe, a lot of kicking, things like that. Obviously, there’s a time and a place for that, but the way Scotland play best is utilising our skills in a fast-paced offloading game. Vern has been good at highlighting that.
“There’s obviously a balance. You don’t want to be flinging miracle passes on your own line.
“If there’s a logical reason for what you’ve done, a grubber kick or a crossfield kick and you can say ‘I saw a winger come up or the full-back was not going to get across and I saw space in behind’ and you kick it out on the full – if reasoning is something logical like that, you should reward players. That’s Vern’s philosophy.”
Needless to say, Wales have their own philosophy, and, that loss to England notwithstanding, it is one that usually brings results. The boot of Leigh Halfpenny can win matches on its own, the backs will go out to punch holes in the Scotland midfield, and, if they get a solid lead, the pack are capable of stifling the life out of any fightback.
But because they are favourites and because they have achieved more as a team, there is that little bit more pressure on the Welsh.
Cotter, conversely, appears adept at helping his team relax in the right way, as he showed yesterday when asked how vital a victory would be this weekend.
“We would rather win,” he said. “The intention is to win the game and I’ve seen the guys work extremely hard to develop the game that will give us an opportunity to win.
“This is not the end of the season. And it’s not the World Cup. It’s not the Six Nations in 2018 or whatever.
“We’re focusing on this game and, whatever happens in this game, we’ll take that from it. But the intention is to play well and we’re playing to win. We’ll see what comes from that.”
The implication was clear. It’s not win or bust, for all that a defeat tomorrow would almost certainly consign Scotland to a lower-half finish in the championship, with the probability that the home game against Italy at the end of the month will once again determine the destination of the Wooden Spoon. A failure to win will not negate the positive achievements of Cotter’s reign so far, and the coach rightly implied that he has embarked on a long-term project to revive the fortunes of the national side. Having said that, you don’t go from no-hoper to champion in one seamless move. There are landmarks along the way and, in the Six Nations, there is no greater landmark than a victory over opponents who have had the better of you for some time.
Scotland left the field against New Zealand in the autumn convinced that they had allowed a precious opportunity to slip through their hands. They have still never beaten the world champions, and they may not get a better chance to do so any time soon. They left the field against France last week in an almost identical frame of mind. No matter how much credit they deserved for the way they played, they were frustrated that, again, they had failed to return hope into reality.
They do not want to experience that feeling of being thwarted for a third time tomorrow. They are ready to take the next step. It will be a novel and disconcerting experience for the squad’s younger members, but if they hold their nerve, they can do it.