Why Scotland can still dream despite a disappointing Six Nations - Allan Massie
Nobody would pretend it wasn’t a disappointing Six Nations. We had hoped for three victories, even, if the Gods were with us, four. We got two. In truth we are in the same boat as England, Wales and Italy.
Any unbiased observer must surely conclude that there were two very good teams – France and Ireland – and four rather ordinary ones. The really disappointing match was in Cardiff. We should have beaten Wales that day but played in a way that allowed them to win. There was disappointment against France and Ireland too, because in both games we carelessly let an excellent try-scoring opportunity slip just when five (or better, seven) points would have put us back in the game.
Some respected critics have said Gregor Townsend’s team has gone back rather than moving forward. I’m not so sure, though one might have felt a good deal more optimistic if the French and Irish matches had been closer. That said, one should remark that in recent years Scotland have rarely shone except when Finn Russell was in full flower, and this year, for whatever reason, he was a bit off his game. It will therefore be interesting to see how he performs for his club Racing 22 in the later stages of the Heineken Champions Cup. We should remember that even the brightest stars have spells when clouds obscure their light.
Though we are told, and like to believe, that we have more strength in depth than has usually been the case, we still need our best players on the field, and in form, if we are to win the really hard matches. We were without Jamie Ritchie for all but the first fifty minutes of the tournament, and certainly missed his skill and judgement at the breakdown – indeed, his rugby intelligence too. Scott Cummings, a star performer last season and by some way out best ball-carrying lock, missed the whole tournament. The line-out struggled in the absence of Jonny Gray until the Irish game.
I hesitate to add Cameron Redpath to the list of those whose absence cost us dear, because he has played so little international rugby, and our belief in him is unavoidably based on slim evidence. Nevertheless he played off Finn Russell so well at Twickenham last year that one longs to see him fully fit and playing regularly, all the more so because no one else has ever quite made the number 12 position his own. Saying this may be a bit hard on Sam Johnson who always does fine things and rarely has a poor game. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that he would be unlikely to have played international rugby if he had been qualified for England, France or Ireland. The same can also be said of his partner in the centre, Chris Harris, admirable and very important as his defensive work has been. He did, one should remember, deservedly establish himself in the Lions Test side last summer. Yet, though he never lets Scotland down, his impact on the tournament was small in comparison with that of the two outstanding number 13s, Gael Fickou and Gary Ringrose.
There were successes, players who enhanced their reputation: Ali Price had his best Six Nations, playing a commanding role for the first time. Darcy Graham was a delight, comparisons with the great Shane Williams fully justified. Pierre Schoeman repeatedly made deep inroads into the opposition defence with ball in hand. George Turner has surely established himself as our first-choice hooker and young Rory Darge made such an impressive start that for the first time in years Hamish Watson’s ownership of the number 7 jersey will be in doubt when a fit Jamie Ritchie has reclaimed the number 6 one. Mark Bennett’s return to the international field was welcome, even though he played only some forty minutes; he has been in superb form for Edinburgh, playing with imagination in a style that had oldies like me comparing him to that Prince of Scottish centres, Hawick’s Jim Renwick. Since, at the end of the international season, it’s permissible to indulge in wishful thinking, having Ali Price feeding a mid-field of Russell, Redpath and Bennett and a back three of Hogg, Graham and ver der Merwe holds the promise of tries being scored from anywhere against anyone. A delightful dream, anyway.
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