Stuart Bathgate: Change was the only option

Scotland captain Kelly Brown on his knees as Tongan players celebrate. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scotland captain Kelly Brown on his knees as Tongan players celebrate. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ANDY Robinson knew his time was up, and he acted on that knowledge immediately. The Scottish Rugby Union knew it too, and if anyone within the governing body tried to dissuade the coach from resigning, the attempt can have been no more than perfunctory.

Robinson has always had exacting standards and, if anything, demanded more of himself than he did of his players. The dignity with which he left has only enhanced his reputation as a man of honesty and honour, and his departure after more than three years at the helm should be a cause of genuine sorrow.

If we are to be honest ourselves, however, we should admit that it has also caused some relief. Relief because it had become painfully obvious that he was going to make no further progress with the national team, and because any attempt to hang on would only have resulted in unnecessary grief for all concerned.

In that respect, the conduct of both coach and governing body was a welcome contrast to the way in which the Scottish Football Association dealt with the end of Craig Levein’s time in charge. These things should be done cleanly, swiftly and decisively, and, while Levein may well have been too stubborn to accept that he had reached the end of the road, the SFA must take a major share of the blame for the squalid manner in which the saga ended.

But, if the termination of the two coaches’ tenure differed in that respect, it was very similar in another – namely that there were people who argued in both cases that the primary fault lay with the players, not with the man in charge. And that no other coach could have done any better with such meagre resources.

Most of us would agree that both Robinson and Levein had distinctly unpromising raw material with which to work, and that neither man, in the short time available to him, could be expected to rectify the many flaws in Scottish rugby or football. But there comes a stage when you have to say that, even allowing for our players’ shortcomings, we should still expect our coaches to do more to compensate for them.

Shorn of all the specialist jargon which every sport has, that is what being a coach is essentially about. If you inherit a bunch of mediocre players, you turn them into good ones. The good ones you make very good. And if you are not blessed to have the individual flair of an Andy Irvine or a Kenny Dalglish in your squad, well then, you make sure that the team is greater than the sum of its parts.

If these things are not happening, we are entitled to suggest that it is time we not only asked if anyone else could do better, but gave someone else a try. The fortunes of both national teams have reached such a low ebb that we simply cannot afford to do nothing. Even if we make a new appointment as no more than a throw of the dice, it is surely worth attempting. We need some fresh impetus, and we cannot allow ourselves to be so dejected and defeated that we fail to accept the importance of making a change.

Yes, the problems of both Scottish rugby and football are deep-seated, and it is unrealistic to expect the successors to Levein and Robinson to sort everything out in a year or two. But we cannot allow ourselves to wallow in despondency. We have to believe that our fortunes will improve.

There are narrow margins between success and victory, and even during the Autumn Test series there were glimpses of how differently things might have turned out.

If Scotland had beaten South Africa, for instance, what implications would that have had for the Tonga game and for Robinson’s future? They were not that far away from doing so. What if Jim Hamilton had forced the ball down for a try instead of being held up over the line? What if the team had opted to kick for goal when awarded a penalty late on instead of going for a lineout?

There was still ample time to pick up the three points and go in search of another score: it would not have been a last-ditch gamble such as the one that proved so costly for England captain Chris Robshaw on Saturday, also against the Springboks. Maybe then, with morale suitably boosted, Scotland could have taken the Tongans in their stride. Maybe.

But the thing is, even after losing a week earlier, Scotland should still have had more than enough weaponry to dispose of the Tongans. Think back to what Kelly Brown said in midweek about the weather in the north-east: how he looked out at the rain and wind sweeping in from the North Sea, and thought Pittodrie would be the ideal place to take on the team from far gentler climes who have always played their best rugby with the sun on their backs. The conditions were ideal. There were no excuses.

Even allowing for their inherent shortcomings, Scotland underperformed again. Something had to give, and it was Robinson’s hold on his job. The coach was given the benefit of the doubt after last season’s Six Nations Championship, but by Saturday night there was little or no doubt left. The time is right for a change, and with a couple of months to go before the start of this season’s Six Nations, a new coach should be able to make a start on the rebuilding job.