Six Nations: Maitland gives reason for optimism

Sean Maitland celebrates scoring his try. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Sean Maitland celebrates scoring his try. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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BEFORE this match there were several pundits suggesting that only one of the Scotland team would get into the England squad.

Sadly, that hubris didn’t come before a fall, but despite England’s overwhelming domination yesterday, that display of metropolitan bias and presumption was dispelled by a gritty and spirited display from Scotland’s back three which augurs well for the rest of this tournament.

England have made no secret of their belief that the way to win is to play the game in the opposition’s half, and they certainly set out to kick long at every opportunity to achieve that end. It’s difficult to believe that such a strategy could have been pursued if they had studied the members of Scotland’s back three in action.

That unit may have its weaknesses – Tim Visser may be a prolific try-scorer but the way in which Ben Morgan bumped off the winger in the first minute crystallised his well-known defensive frailties – but long balls smacked downfield with little or no effective chasing proved to be meat and drink to a Scotland back three that has pace and invention by the bucketload. It was a strategy that led to Scotland’s first try, when Stuart Hogg fielded an aimless clearance kick from Mike Brown deep in his own half and simply ghosted through the nonexistent tackling before bouncing off Andy Goode, with the break eventually leading to a try for Sean Maitland on his first touch of the ball.

The former Canterbury Crusaders flier is not only a prolific try-scorer who holds several records in Super Rugby, but is also a speed machine who has recorded 10.8secs for the 100 metres. On his Scotland debut, however, he only had to scoot six feet into the corner for a try that was almost as impressive a start to his international career as that enjoyed that other successful Kilted Kiwi, John Leslie, who marked his 1999 Scotland debut with try against Wales after ten seconds.

The last time Maitland played at Twickenham, for the Crusaders against the Sharks in a Super Rugby game, he scored a brace of tries and again he looked threatening every time he got the ball.

Not only was he incisive in attack, in defence he was outstanding, shackling Brown and hitting rucks and mauls as if he was Brian O’Driscoll. That hunger to contribute in the less glossy areas of the game also applied to Hogg, whose input was epitomised by the way he hit the ruck which came immediately before Maitland’s try.

Indeed, Scotland’s back three weren’t just impressive with the ball in hand. When England kicked long, while Scotland’s instinct was to run the ball back, their default was for Hogg to hoof the ball back into the corners. The man from Hawick not only boasts a siege-gun of a boot, but the accuracy of his spiralling clearances in this game was absolutely remarkable with one huge touchfinder on 35 minutes, from just outside his 22 and just five metres from touch, landing just inside the touchline on England’s 22.

So effective was Hogg at returning the ball with interest that instead of continuing to kick long, Owen Farrell varied his tactics in the second half, keeping the game tighter and getting his forwards to sap the strength of the visitors’ pack – and the back row in particular – so that the spaces began to appear, and the penalties began to build up.

Only when England took an unassailable lead did they begin to open up and try to attack down the wings. Even then, neither wing got any joy down the touchlines, although Chris Ashton did manage to barrel his way over through heavy traffic in the middle of the park.

Even though Scotland were on the back foot throughout, constantly knocked back by the sheer power of the English in contact and unable to get any quick ball, it was the Scotland back three which was comfortably the more impressive, no matter what the statistics for yards carrying the ball might say. Right until the end, the Scottish wings and full-back carried from deep whenever they got the chance, and invariably made ground and retained the ball when they came into contact.

There were several instances, not least on 60 minutes when Hogg, Scotland’s man of the match, ran the ball from behind his own line and fed Visser, who beat one man and then kicked long. The two Scots then chased down Goode as he fielded the ball, dumping the England full-back and allowing the onrushing Scottish forwards to turn the ball over and win a penalty.

Ten minutes later two members of the back three combined once more, this time to even greater effect. Scotland once again ran the ball from deep in their own 22, before it was worked to Maitland. The wing made ground and then kicked ahead, taking a late hit but still chasing, only to be overtaken by Hogg, who hacked ahead and beat the cover tackler to touch down in the corner for a classic counterattacking try.

Given the comprehensive nature of England’s domination up front – and particularly at the set-pieces – and Farrell’s pinpoint kicking, it was always going to be too little, too late. Yet Scotland’s back three, and in particular Hogg, left England with much to ponder. On the basis of this match, Johnnie Beattie and all of the back three would not only get into the England squad, but would probably go straight into their team.

Normally that would be of scant interest, but not only does it give Scotland reason to look forward to next week’s game against Italy with some optimism, it matters in this, a Lions Tour year. As Warren Gatland will no doubt have noted, there’s still life in these young bucks.