The matches in Cardiff and Rome have confirmed the impression one formed during the World Cup: that Vern Cotter is putting a pretty good team together. It is still a fairly young one, and we may have to wait another couple of years for its full flowering. Careers are longer now in the professional game, and the best international teams are considerably older and more experienced than was the case 20 years ago. It is likely that, over the next two seasons, Cotter’s team may lose as many matches as they win but this, of course, would be a great improvement on Scotland’s overall Six Nations record.
In Rome, Scotland looked very good indeed when on the front foot, the three tries being beautifully clean scores, made possible by speed, well-chosen lines and good passing. They were the tries of a confident team, alert for opportunities and taking them with flair. Thirty six points, one may note, equals our highest score in an away match in the championship. Add to this the solidity, even dominance, of our set scrum and the excellence of Greig Laidlaw’s goal-kicking and you have a thoroughly satisfactory afternoon.
Yet, paradoxically, it was the set scrum superiority and Laidlaw’s relentless accuracy that contributed to Italy’s territorial dominance in the second half and to the fact that we did not score a try between the 17th and 78th minute. Italy seemed to concede a penalty whenever we were in their half. Laidlaw kicked the goal and the Italians, handling much better than in the first half-hour of the match, were back in the Scottish half of the field. Laidlaw was certainly right to take the points whenever they were on offer but, afterwards, one wondered if we might not have scored more tries if he had chosen to put penalties into touch in or around the Italian 22. We have had trouble fielding restarts and regaining control far too often, but it should be said that Kelly Haimona’s restart kicks were well conceived and executed. The high hanging restart that drops a yard or two beyond the ten-metre line is hard to defend if the chase is good – and nobody chases such kicks better than Sergio Parisse. Consequently, each goal kicked by Laidlaw led to a period of prolonged Italian pressure which, happily, was met by resolute and well-organised defence.
More such defence will be needed next week against France, who are not anything like as bad a team as English and Welsh commentators have been suggesting. They defended very well in the first half against Wales and had much the better of the second-half. Their forwards had Wales on the back foot and, if their backs were rather inept, they were no worse than the Welsh backs had been when they were on top for the first 40 minutes.
It is likely that France will have a better back division at Murrayfield than at Cardiff. Francois Trinh-Duc came on there for the last quarter of the match and gave their attack a direction it had lacked before. Then Wesley Fofana, arguably the best centre in Europe, has missed France’s first three matches but played a full game for Clermont-Auvergne last week.
If Trinh-Duc, Fofana and Gael Fickou are at 10, 12, 13, the French back division will be a very different and much more dangerous beast.
There has been a fair amount of moaning about failure to learn lessons from the World Cup. Actually, it would be surprising if any had been learned and put into practice in such a short period. Moreover, the World Cup was played in benign weather; the three weekends of the Six Nations have been mostly cold and wet.
Whatever the quality, the intensity has made almost every match compelling. There have been strange refereeing decisions, of course, but I have almost come to think there’s no hope for consistency. In any case, no referee is going to police the breakdown according to the laws. So one might as well just shrug the shoulders.
Not so, however, with regard to foul play, too much of which goes unpunished. I find it extraordinary that no action was taken against the England full-back Mike Brown when he kicked Ireland’s Conor Murray in the face, two, if not three, times. “Not deliberate”, his defenders said, “just careless”, and “in any case, Murray should not have been holding on to the ball”. The second kick when he brought his boot back into Murray’s face looked deliberate to me, a clear red card. But Brown got off with only a mild reprimand. Would a Pacific Islander, a Georgian or a Romanian have been treated so leniently? Not on the evidence of judicial proceedings in the World Cup, they wouldn’t.