It may be ever thus in sport, but the key to making the Scottish national rugby team a more consistent player in the world game lies with Scotland’s mastery of the “X Factor” – their ability to catch up with the fast-moving technical advances being propelled by the leading nations, and at the same time retain the passion that has made Scotland teams of the past feared on their Murrayfield patch.
If they claim a unique third win on the trot, with a first win over Wales since 2007, they could find themselves rising as high as sixth in the world rankings, and begin to point towards a Scottish team rediscovering how to play with the big boys.
But how could they make that a reality inside a packed Murrayfield this afternoon against the reigning Grand Slam champions with one eye on another title? A variety of coaches have tried and ultimately failed over the 13 years of the Six Nations to cultivate consistency in Scotland, from Ian McGeechan to Matt Williams, Frank Hadden to Andy Robinson. A coaching quartet more different to each other in thought and skills it may be impossible to uncover.
The last coach to savour the taste of three spring wins in a row was another who broke the mould, Jim Telfer, in the triumphant 1999 tournament, but that didn’t count in championship terms as Italy were not yet in the official championship then, merely preparing for their entrance the following year.
So, the last official three-in-a-row was in 1996, when Richie Dixon and David Johnston were seeking to move Scottish players out of their comfort zone with a more open, handling game that moved away from the more structured style favoured previously. Now, Scotland have an intriguing trio shaping the team: Scott Johnson, a former Australian Under-21 stand-off; Dean Ryan, a straight-up back-row forward from England; and a shrewd-thinking Matt Taylor, born in Australia to Scottish parents, who twice lived in Scotland and fell just one step short of representing Scotland (he won three A caps), but learned most of his rugby down under.
And it is the latter who has been the less visible but the most busy in terms of moulding a different Scottish team. The defence coach who helped steer Queensland Reds to Super Rugby glory was happy yesterday to outline how he is trying to change the Scottish focus and how he believes it holds the answer to the side becoming more consistently difficult to beat. “We’ve had great strides compared to where we were in the autumn and are moving in the right direction, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be and we know that,” he said flatly. “Scotland’s always had the intent in the players and aggression, but, looking at them when I first came in, some of our spacing, fold and principles needed improving. As you’ve seen from the last two games, the intent and willingness has been there and it’s just fine-tuning the systems. Defence is about systems and attitude and work-rate, and those three aspects are coming together now.”
He spoke of Ireland’s poor finishing skills at times, and accepted that teams can win on less ball than their opposition – Scotland’s opponents have been doing it for years – but dismissed the notion that Scotland could repeat that last magic act of winning a Test match with just 30 per cent of the ball.
He has studied Wales in great detail and believes he knows how and where they will attack, and is confident that his side can contain them if their first-up tackling is better. But, more pertinently, what he has brought from down under is the key change in modern rugby, an area which separates the world leaders and those such as Scotland struggling to hang in there – the ability to launch attacks from nothing.
With defences now so strong, organised and suffocating, the All Blacks, Wallabies and others are mastering the ability to use every tackle to steal ball and spring attacking opportunities, when defences are not set and waiting. That comes from what Taylor terms the “post-tackle” and it will be a key determinant at Murrayfield this afternoon.
We will watch two hard packs going at each other hammer and tongs, the confrontations of Paul James and Euan Murray, Adam Jones and Ryan Grant, particularly mouthwatering, while Jim Hamilton’s battle with fellow British and Irish Lions contender Alun Wyn-Jones to ensure his jumpers dominate the lineout will be engrossing and play its part in shaping the game. But no longer do they decide it, as both teams will have their moments on top in the set-piece.
Scrum-halves Greig Laidlaw and Mike Phillips are two of the best in the tournament, for very different reasons, and Scotland will ask Duncan Weir on his first Test start to match his opposite number Dan Biggar in kicking ball in front of his pack and behind defence. Both sides will ask exciting big runners, such as Johnnie Beattie and Toby Faletau, to take them forward and smash defenders back, and look to seize on a half-break to get in behind, where the finishers of the quality of Scottish trio Tim Visser, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg, and their Welsh counterparts George North, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny could wreak havoc.
It is a tantalising prospect; another mouthwatering rugby match in store. But the real hinge in the game, the countless moments that will decide who gains the momentum, comes at the tackle. The defensive turnover is the golden ticket to Scotland’s historic win, and while the spotlight inevitably falls on the turnover masters, openside flankers Kelly Brown and Sam Warburton, the result will hang on the team rather than the individual that dominates this area. That is Taylor’s speciality.
“Good defence does two things,” he explained. “It stops a team from scoring and it produces opportunities to score tries. If you look at our six tries, the one by Hoggy catching it was lucky because if they’d got the pass away they’d have scored, but two of the other tries were forced through turnovers [stolen ball].
“We’ve got a back three that are world-class or getting to that stage in terms of speed, and if we manage to turn teams over and get it to those guys, teams will find it hard to stop them.
“So, one aspect we’ve really focused on is the work around the post-tackle, and we measure it in a way now that the players know that they can’t just turn up and make tackles, but they have to produce some sort of effect on the opposition ball post-tackle; show an ability to get back on their feet really quickly and get in the defensive line, slow down the ball.
“We have an X-factor award, which Sean Maitland won at the weekend for his ability to get back when the line was broken. And we have the PPP award – pressure, power, presence around the tackle area – and we give a jersey with that on it, to promote that defensive culture and their ability round the ball.”
Kelly Brown sported the PPP jersey after the Ireland game, with Greig Laidlaw and Sean Lamont the winners after the Italy match. It is a bit of fun, but with a serious message. Taylor showed his tough side when he laid into the squad for poor first-up tackling against Ireland, but also praised their ability to scramble the defence and shut the door when the Irish were homing in on the try.
Balance. Every performance needs balance. With thousands of coaches employed in the game now – like all sides, Scotland almost have as many full-time computer analysts as coaches –the technical side of rugby is bounding forward. As we savour the 118th meeting of two proud, passionate rivals, and the last Murrayfield occasion of a so-far uplifting Six Nations Championship, we should discover whether Scotland are yet capable of bounding with it.