Almost nobody thinks Scotland will win today. This isn’t surprising. Even in good times when Murrayfield was a fortress we have always found it difficult to win away from home. That ever-memorable 34-18 victory in Cardiff in 1982 was the first time the great Jim Renwick had played in an away Five Nations win – ten years after his first cap. Yet he had played in teams with other greats like Andy Irvine, Gordon Brown, Billy Steele, Ian McGeechan, John Rutherford, Roy Laidlaw, Ian McLauchlan – all Lions. So while we oldies may dream of a repeat of that 1982 game when the spark was lit by Roger Baird’s audacious decision to run from our own 22,the odds, one confesses, are against it.
Last Saturday was disappointing, but a good deal less than disastrous. Scotland played quite well most of the time, but lacked precision and imagination. The middle part of the game was good, and at half-time I thought we would win. Then England scored a good try and closed the game down.
However, even in our best period, too much of our play was like too much of our play over recent years. In the second quarter we besieged the England line, but the longer we were camped in their 22, the less we looked like scoring a try. The same old failings, people have said since.
It’s not easy of course to find a way through a well-organised defence like England’s. This point was reinforced in Sunday’s match in Dublin. Ireland and Wales both had lots of possession in the other’s half and 22, and could make very little of it. Each scored one short-range try in the first half. After the interval there were no tries, only three penalty goals. At one point Wales went through 25 phases, and got nowhere. Like Scotland the Welsh and Irish seemed to work on the assumption that, if like Robert the Bruce’s spider, you keep trying the same thing, you will eventually succeed. Repeated experiments suggest this ain’t necessarily so. In Dublin both sides recycled the ball quickly and efficiently, and still got nowhere.
The lesson surely is that a bit of variety is needed. In the two matches I recall only one intelligent attacking kick – a diagonal over the try-line by Rhys Priestland – and perhaps he attempted that only because the referee was playing advantage for a penalty to Wales. Teams often seem to be afraid to kick in attack. One understands why. Possession and territory have been hard gained. You don’t want to risk losing the ball. So you go through the phases. Fair enough. Yet unless you score a try you lose possession sometime, inevitably. Neverless you keep hoping that the lesson Bruce took from the spider was a good one. Sometimes it is, more often it isn’t. Defences today are modelled on Rugby League. League players learn how to outwit them. They do so by chips, grubbers, diagonals or even Garryowens; and that’s how a lot of tries are scored in League.
Wales have a very powerful and well-ordered defence. They keep their structure and composure. So Scotland’s best – only? – chance of scoring tries is to unsettle them. If our players keep recycling ball and attempting to break through, Jamie Roberts & Co will knock them back or swallow them up. They won’t even need to think about it.They’ll exist happily in their comfort zone – a comfort Ireland scarcely ever disturbed. So a bit of variety is needed: intelligent kicking, quickly-taken tap penalties, driving mauls in midfield and not just from lineouts, and everything done at speed. The modern game – the Welsh game certainly – is built on a solid structure. So we should seek to create a bit of chaos, do the unexpected a kick-off or restart along the ground, a really high, hanging Garryowen under the Welsh posts – anything can happen with a Garryowen.
This would be a risky strategy. The Welsh, with their big, fast and powerful backs, might themselves benefit to play a programmed game: safer, but…
Observation, common sense and experience all lead me to the same conclusions. This is a game Wales are expected to win, even to win comfortably. If we play with the same predictability that we displayed in the Calcutta Cup we have very little chance of winning, if indeed any. So it doesn’t make sense to play the repetitive recycling game in the hope that somehow or other the Welsh defence will crack. So try something different, vary the game, play with the daring of the young Roger Baird when he set up that length of the field try almost 40 years ago. “Who dares, wins” – sometimes anyway. It might end in disaster; it might not. On the other hand I can’t suppose that playing the standard recycling-and-hope modern game against this Welsh team will end in anything but defeat.