When the history of professional rugby in Scotland is written, the 2015-16 season may be seen as a pivotal one. It is not the end of the heartache, yesterday proved that much, but it may mark the beginning of the end. Scotland Under-20s beat England for the first time and while Scotland only enjoyed two wins, they managed a record 11 tries in the Six Nations.
Scotland started and ended the same way, poorly, and Vern Cotter did not always appreciate the Press saying so out loud. The burly coach proved surprisingly sensitive to criticism. “Are you going to write anything positive this week,” he growled after a disappointing English game.
But his side under-performed against a vulnerable England team on their first outing, just as they were dreadful in the first half yesterday. Against that Cotter’s men showed drive, determination and no little skill to see off Italy and chalk up the first win for a decade against France. We can talk about players and analyse tactics all day long, but there are two surprisingly simple reasons that account for Scotland’s two victories in the middle of this tournament.
Firstly, the set scrum has morphed from laughing stock to becoming Scotland’s weapon of choice, and secondly, the team stopped making stupid, unforced handling errors.
Scrum feeds are an accurate indication of which team is making mistakes. In the opening match, England enjoyed 13 and Scotland just one. Scotland literally couldn’t hold on to the ball. By the time France arrived at Murrayfield in the fourth round of matches those statistics were reversed, Scotland had nine scrum feeds and France one. In Dublin Ireland had seven and Scotland one… which they lost.
Scotland won those two matches because they looked after the ball in the contact zone, and avoided the “Hail Mary” pass when the chances of it sticking were vanishingly thin. And when Stuart Hogg did chance his arm with a blind flap to Tim Visser against France, it resulted in a try.
Cutting the error count is only half the story, because Scotland’s set scrum made huge strides with especial mention for the front-row trio of WP Nel, Ross Ford and Alasdair Dickinson: the big men deserve the freedom of Nando’s for transforming the scrum from marshmallow to gobstopper. It won the penalty county 5-1 against France and was even more destructive against Italy, but it took a backwards step yesterday along with several other facets of Scotland’s game.
There are other reasons to be optimistic, the fact that Scotland averaged 25 points in the championship and are a free-scoring team. If their defence ever matches their attacking aptitude Scotland will be contenders and tightening the defensive nuts and bolts should be relatively easy.
Referees were a little more sympathetic to Scotland in a way that they haven’t been for years. Against France, Glen Jackson gave Scotland all the 50-50 calls, ignoring John Hardie’s high tackle on Maxine Machenaud and Greig Laidlaw’s shirt tug. Last season, when Scotland played Wales at Murrayfield, he ignored Rhys Webb’s high tackle on Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and much else besides.
This campaign has also unearthed a gem of a player in Duncan Taylor, with the only drawback being that he takes the place of another, Mark Bennett. Taylor not only scored several superb solo tries but his unflustered decision-making, especially alongside the recalled Alex Dunbar, is one of the reasons that Scotland’s defence behind the scrum is tighter than it was in the World Cup. When everyone is fit, Cotter now has four international-class centres to choose from, which is not something anyone has previously claimed, at least in the professional era. The depth is the midfield is not mirrored elsewhere. If WP Nel had broken a leg in January, Scotland could have gone another Six Nations season without a win – and where is that big, bullocking blindside flanker the team needs? The lack of quality locks has been highlighted by Grant Gilchrist’s unceasing injury misery.
Good wingers are hard to come across and, when you do unearth one, he rarely matches the aerial expertise of his Irish opponent, as was obvious yesterday in Dublin.
Finn Russell continues to develop at fly-half. He was badly missed against France and Ireland, but the good news is that there are three, highly competent, stand-offs in the Scotland Under-20 squad – Adam Hastings, Blair Kinghorn and Rory Hutchinson – with the possibility that at least one will emerge as a genuine contender before the 2019 World Cup. Incidentally, Hutchinson can double up at 13, he has genuine pace and a decent kicking game… the Northampton Saint is worth keeping an eye on.
Scotland are a work in progress, far from the finished article, even presuming such a thing exists in elite sport, and prone to setbacks as are any young side. If their maul defence has improved, the Scots were still found wanting against England, France and especially Ireland. Big men running straight scored simple tries for England and Italy. When France threw the ball about the Scots’ defence was stressed to breaking point, which shouldn’t happen in the opening five minutes of a game, even with Russell seeing stars.
But Scotland should be improving because Cotter has more quality at his disposal than any other Scotland coach of this millennium, with another good batch coming through. Any broker will tell you, the price of the stock is irrelevant – the underlying direction is all, and despite yesterday’s disappointment, Scotland’s stock is slowly inching upwards.