Why Scotland remain rugby's inbetweeners
International matches, especially in the Six Nations, are a little like stocks and shares. They should come with the warning “Past performance is not a guide to future performance”, something Scots know better than most because autumn promise leads to new year disappointment with depressing regularity.
Last weekend everyone held their breath at the set scrum where Scotland dug their heels in, only to loose three lineouts.
Everyone expected Wales to attack through the driving maul, instead they ripped Scotland to shreds in the wide channels, three of their four tries going to outside backs.
As Greig Laidlaw pointed out midweek, Cardiff is gone, no one gets to effect that match any more. But while the players can no longer effect Cardiff, the shock and the humiliation of the opening weekend will undoubtedly still be affecting those who played.
Cardiff demands a reaction and the Scots will undoubtedly come up with one. The home team will get in the line and they will get off the line, they will chop the big French runners at the ankles and they will make passes, as well as tackles, stick. They will front up.
This is a good thing and a bad one. Good that it will surely happen, bad that it takes a slap in the face on the opening weekend to evoke such a reaction.
The point is that good teams are always good, difficult to beat even when playing badly, bringing their best to every game rather than when stung by criticism. For all the promise of the autumn, Scotland are not yet a good team, although as John Barclay stated yesterday, nor are they a bad one. They are rugby’s inbetweeners…and that is being a little generous.
For decades we have hidden behind an exciting autumn series or a couple of wins on the summer tour when the nation’s record in the day job has been appalling. Scotland boasts, if that is the right word, 24 wins in 91 Six Nations’ outings, or one win every four matches this side of the millennium, when matches against Italy are a gimme, at least for almost everyone else. The number of variables is almost infinite and the Six Nations is notoriously tricky to forecast but today’s game should offer up a traditional contrast in styles: Scotland all pace, skill and guile against the visitors who will surely look to the boot of Lionel Beauxis – why else did they recall him – and a giant pack of athletic forwards.
“I guess it’s that whole thing of trying to look at teams and guess what is going to happen before we get on to the pitch,” said Barclay yesterday, the Scotland skipper as confused as everyone else about what to expect.
“From selection you could say they have picked a more kicking stand-off but then you look at the players in and around him who are running threats so you never quite know. It’s a cliche with the French, you never quite know what you are going to get. And equally we have a guy who has not played for France for six years [Beauxis] so he’ll be very motivated as well.
“I would be very disappointed if there wasn’t a reaction to what we have discussed and looked at,” Barclay said in response to a question about the physical challenge of playing France.
“We went over there [last season] and almost came away with a win despite a shedload of injuries so, yeah, I think they will come and try and play physical rugby. It’s up to us to meet that but also to play up-tempo rugby with a lot more accuracy than we managed last week.
“You’ve got to meet them physically, win the gainline, but also play with tempo. We want to move the big men around the pitch and keep the ball alive. Against the Welsh, we probably tried to do that too soon; we didn’t go up the middle first.”
Having a second receiver like Peter Horne will help Scotland’s accuracy and decision-making but still Scotland will miss Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor because there is no one in the Scottish backs to “go up the middle” as Barclay put it. And while that attribute might not be high on Gregor Townsend’s agenda, it is still a handy go-to when under the cosh.
Without Dunbar/Taylor the Scottish backs are universally small and/or slight. If France don’t target the 9-13 midfield area, which houses Laidlaw, Finn Russell, Horne and Huw Jones, with their heavy traffic then they haven’t done their homework.
But if the Scots can be more accurate, Barclay’s own experience in beating Toulon in the Champions Cup just a few weeks ago highlights the rewards of looking after the ball.
“My experience of playing against Toulon, and there aren’t actually that many French players in their team,” he pointed out, “was that when we went through phases, when we held on to the ball, we almost walked in a couple of tries.”
We should see a contrast in styles. We will surely see a greater hunger from the Scots who will target Beauxis, challenge both French wingers in the air and attempt to play with tempo.
France will probably play their traditional game, lots of very direct runners, lineout drives, scrum drives, pick-and-drives, before giving the outside backs a canter when the Scots’ defence has been stressed out of shape.
It should be a close encounter and if forced to choose I fancy Scotland to edge it, but I said that last weekend too.