I had a pretty good view of last week’s win, as I had managed to wangle a spot next to the Scotland dug-out, plonked right on Murrayfield’s still-inexplicable running track. I know; get me.
This favoured position allowed me to pick up a few things that aren’t always evident from TV coverage. Firstly, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the type of athletes involved at the highest level.
My appreciation of the male form is as avid as the next chap’s, and up close it was clear from every single player’s body shape, movement patterns and posture that there is no longer room for “getting away with it” when it comes to a top side’s conditioning.
Beyond that, there is the unavoidable fact that, in the pack, genuinely massive humans are now a basic requirement if you want to even think about being competitive. However, the Six Nations forwards, and in particular second rows, are pushing the boundaries of what is expected of a team’s big men. It is no longer enough to excel at just one thing – running a lineout, hitting the most rucks, simply providing decent ballast at scrum time. Many of this year’s locks are among their respective packs’ best ball handlers, top tacklers and most effective ball carriers. Seeing the giant Yoann Maestri, Alexandre Flanquart and the Gray brothers up close brought home the power that is required to move those huge frames round the pitch so athletically, all whilst performing delicate little offloads or delivering perfect lineout ball.
Secondly, even as someone who played professional rugby for a while, I still found it fascinating to get a bit of a behind the scenes look at what it takes to get 15 healthy men out on the pitch to play this insane game; the numerous fitness coaches, physios, masseurs, kitman, analysts, doctor, etc who prepare and repair the squad week after week.
In amongst the pitch-side camp followers it was yet another (former) second row who particularly caught my eye. This was partly due to his gigantic back blocking out a good proportion of the action, but mainly because it was interesting to watch Nathan Hines at work in his role as Vern Cotter’s right hand man. He is, of course, prominent on television when running the water on, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a means of passing on messages from the coaches. What I hadn’t realised is that for the rest of the time he situates himself in the little technical area right beside the pitch, where ordinarily only physios venture, bawling instructions and encouragement to his players (as well as the occasional bit of friendly advice to the officials).
No doubt some of this would have been coming down from the coaching box and into Nathan’s earpiece, but it was clear that a big part of his role is to act as an extra pair of eyes at ground level and offer instant feedback to the players. Essentially, he was performing the role of the typical football manager. Just how effective that kind of input can be, in either sport, is open to question, but it certainly can’t do any harm to have someone as tactically shrewd as Hines being on hand to aid tired players’ decision making.
And it is something I have always wondered about: why do all football managers, even the brightest, most analytical Wenger-esque ones, prefer to keep it strictly old school in the dug-out, while almost every top level rugby coach cloisters himself away somewhere in the stands armed with more laptops than your average PC World? Is it due to the extra layers of complexity in rugby, or has it simply become the orthodoxy over the past couple of decades?
The fact is, apart from at half-time, when adjustments to tactics on a macro level can be made, it is almost impossible for a coach to influence his players’ actions once the match kicks off. I asked Frank Hadden about it, and he agreed that the feeling of impotency was similar no matter
where you position yourself. The coach’s work is done in the days and weeks in the lead up to the game and there is very little that he can do to influence the thousands of tiny details which go into a top side, whether it’s ball placement, exit strategy, kick chase or effectiveness at the ruck, if they haven’t been hammered into his players throughout his rugby life.
Which is why an impassive, expressionless coach up in that glass box, like Vern Cotter, or dare I say it, Joe Schmidt, inspires confidence in players and supporters alike. They give off the comforting feeling that no stone has been left unturned in preparing their teams, and that they have been around long enough to know that a tight match like today’s can be decided by any number of unforeseeable factors.
Last week, moments of inspiration from Duncan Taylor and Stuart Hogg, along with France’s unwillingness to catch the ball, made the difference. Today, who knows? The main thing is, with this Scotland team, there is almost a guarantee that they will be competitive, so any opportunities that come along can actually prove decisive.