Allan Massie: Young pack can emulate Scottish heroes of 1984 and 1990

Jim Calder, Iain Paxton, David Leslie – Fin Calder, Derek White, John Jeffrey – the names of these back-rows ring loud and happily in the memory.
Having been marked for greatness, Magnus Bradbury is recalled to face England today. Picture: GettyHaving been marked for greatness, Magnus Bradbury is recalled to face England today. Picture: Getty
Having been marked for greatness, Magnus Bradbury is recalled to face England today. Picture: Getty

They belong to our great years, 1984 and 1990, and famous victories over England at Murrayfield. Well, of course, there can be no Grand Slam for either team this season and no Triple Crown for Scotland after defeat in Dublin. But there’s the Calcutta Cup to be won and the championship itself is still open.

So one wonders if today, the all-Edinburgh back-row of Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury and Hamish Watson can perform mighty deeds which will cause them to be enshrined in memory like the heroes of 1984 and 1990. Make no mistake. The battle of the back-rows is vital, and Ritchie, Bradbury and Watson are capable of winning it.

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Nick Haining had a pretty good first international match as a late replacement for Bradbury in Dublin, good enough even to make his relegation to the bench seem harsh. That he isn’t starting is evidence of the high regard in which Bradbury is held. Bradbury has been marked for greatness for two or three years now; time to deliver. He is capable of being as important to Scotland as the great Peter O’Mahony has been, and still is, for Ireland. Bradbury is not only skilful. He is rugged and explosive, reminiscent in style of Johnnie Beattie ten or so years ago, indeed also of Johnnie’s father John, a Lion when very young in 1980.

The Scottish forwards were generally very good against Ireland. Though the line-out was a bit sub-standard, their defence of the maul was impressive and they were vigorous and aggressive with ball in hand. Most pleasing was the set scrum, the props Zander Fagerson and Rory Sutherland being excellent. In his Gala days Sutherland was a protégé of George Graham, himself one of the toughest nuts ever to pack down on the loosehead for Scotland. Last Saturday Sutherland came out with at least honours even against Tadhg Furlong, the best tighthead in the Six Nations for the last couple of years. Given that his career has been so interrupted by long recoveries from injury, Sutherland is really starting again at international level. However, he is still only 28 and many props have their best years in their thirties.

It’s encouraging that this is still a young Scotland pack, the oldest, Fraser Brown being only 30, while Scott Cummings, a lock good enough already to remind me of the greatest of Scottish locks, Gordon Brown, is only 23. In short, we now have a pack which will be there for quite some time, barring injuries or loss of form.

In Dublin, Ali Price had one of his best games for Scotland, profiting certainly from the performance of the forwards. But he helped them with his speed, sniping breaks, and especially his good judgement. He ran Scotland’s game better than Conor Murray ran Ireland’s.

Today will of course be a tough assignment, but there’s the making of a very good side here. It’s also a more securely Scottish one than many we have fielded in the professional era. Ten of the starting XV were born, reared and developed as rugby players in Scotland. One, Huw Jones, was born but not reared here. Ali Price and Hamish Watson were born and schooled in England, but each has at least one Scottish parent and both played for Scotland at age-group level. New Zealand-born Sean Maitland qualifies through grandparents. Only Sam Johnson, who had a very good game in Dublin, qualifies by residency.

England come here wounded by their loss in Paris and therefore dangerous. Nobody can doubt that they are capable of playing magnificent rugby. Their RWC semi-final demolition of the All Blacks was the finest performance for years by any team from one of the Lions countries. But, while their away record in the Six Nations is not as bad as Scotland’s, it hasn’t been all that good. Indeed since their Grand Slam in 2016, their away tournament record reads: played 8, won 3, lost 5. They have lost twice in Paris (2018 and 2020), once in Dublin (2017), once at Murrayfield (2018) and once in Cardiff (2019). So they are eminently beatable away from Twickenham.

One of the encouraging features last week was that we started well in Dublin, instead of in the uncertain, even timid, manner in which we have so often started in recent years. You have to start well against England, whether this is by taking the game to them hard and making inroads, as Finlay Calder did so memorably in 1990, or by the resolute defence France showed in the first five minutes of Sunday’s match when, after England had kicked off and were in the French 22, even players such as Manu Tuilagi were being knocked a couple of yards back in the tackle.

In short, if you let England settle, they can tear you apart. If you don’t, then, like any other team, they may start questioning themselves rather than asking difficult questions of you. So, let the rugby storm begin, while hoping the forecast weather one holds off until the match is over.

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