Six Nations: Hope springs eternal for Scotland

Scott Johnson. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Scott Johnson. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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IT’S absurd. Every year as the opening day of the Six Nations approaches, one experiences a surge of optimism. A fortnight ago, it was clear that we had no chance of winning at Twickenham.

By lunchtime on Saturday, one may even be thinking it’s a 50-50 game. This us utterly irrational. Nevertheless. . .

Forget the 30 years since we last won there. All such runs come to an end some day. Sadly, reason indicates that there is much in England’s favour, recent form for one. There are other disquieting statistics. Since Italy joined the tournament in 2000, Scotland have played 33 away matches, and won just four of them.

England have played at Twickenham 32 times in the Six Nations and won 24 of these games. One should add that we have always found it difficult to win away from Murrayfield. Even in the 1980s we lost away far more often than we won.

This is a strong and, perhaps more importantly, efficient England team. The All Backs may have been running out of steam when they came to Twickenham – there had been signs of exhaustion in the last half-hour against Wales the week before – but to beat New Zealand so thumpingly was quite some achievement. Moreover, they lost to South Africa thanks to a freak try, and to Australia because of a wrong decision by their captain. In short, they had a pretty good autumn.

In contrast, we lost all three games, a depressing result that proved too much for Andy Robinson. It is true that the schedule was against us. I’m pretty sure we would have beaten Tonga if that match had been the first in the autumn. Still, losing one game you are expected to win isn’t the end of the world. France lost to Tonga in the pool stages of the last World Cup and came within a whisker of beating the All Blacks in the final.

If you compare today’s teams unit by unit, it is not evident that England have any great advantage. The front rows look evenly matched. At lock Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton are bigger and more experienced than their immediate opponents. I wouldn‘t swap the Scottish back-row for the English one, especially if Johnnie Beattie can reproduce his Montpellier form. We should at least achieve parity up front, though I guess we need more than that if we are to win.

Ben Youngs or Greig Laidlaw at scrum-half? Youngs is the more dangerous runner but Laidlaw has the sounder temperament and will make fewer mistakes. The question is whether we are sufficiently alert to punish any that Youngs makes. Owen Farrell at 10 is the new pin-up boy of English rugby. He is a goal-kicker in the Wilkinson/O’Gara class and kicks excellently from hand too but he is not the greatest distributor and a less dangerous runner than Leicester‘s Toby Flood, who is confined to the bench. Many here have grave doubts about Ruaridh Jackson, who has not yet fulfilled his early promise, partly because his career has been blighted by a succession of injuries. Yet, if he reproduces his recent form from both the Heineken and the RaboDirect Pro12 league, he will surely silence his critics.

Neither centre pairing looks particularly good, certainly not compared to what Wales, Ireland and France can field. We may be happy that England are missing Manu Tuilagi, who was outstanding against the All Blacks and who is twice the player he was 12 months ago, now that he has learned that it‘s a good idea for a centre sometimes to pass or off-load the ball.

As for the back three, we may even have the edge here, now that Stuart Hogg is playing well again. Tim Visser’s defence is still shaky – but then so is Chris Ashton’s. Both, however, will score tries if given space or a sniff of the line. It will be interesting to see how we manage to bring Sean Maitland into the game in an attacking role. The prospect is exciting.

England will kick a lot and our chances may depend on how well we deal with their kicking game. It is vital that the right decision is made, whether to return a kick or run the ball. If the recipient runs and gets tackled with most of his team still in front of him, then there is the grave risk of being turned over or of conceding a penalty for holding on, We simply cannot afford to give away penalties anywhere in our own half. If we avoid doing that we have a chance. If we don’t, it’s likely that, in a couple of years, we will be back at Twickenham still sighing, “how long, O Lord, how long?”

As ever much will depend on the referee, Alain Rolland, and especially on how he deals with the set scrum. Talking of that side of the game, it would be nice, just occasionally, to see the number 8 releasing the ball when his scrum is advancing, in order to allow the backs the chance to run against a retreating defence. Sadly, this isn’t likely. It’s more probable that modern practice will be followed, with the ball being kept in the scrum until opposition heads pop up and a penalty is awarded.