By Rory Baldwin
With the gloom settling over Murrayfield once again, it’s difficult to say precisely what has been learned in the aftermath of a drubbing by the South Africans that netted Scotland as many points as your average Norwegian Eurovision entry.
A few things jump out though.
You can’t outmuscle the South Africans
I doubt even the All Blacks would try and batter at the Springbok defence with the expectation of making ground. Certainly not when it hasn’t worked for the previous 70 minutes.
The Scotland forwards put in plenty of work. Denton carried the ball manfully, but he was unable to get over the gain line with any great success. Any Scot who did find himself a yard or two further forward from where he caught the ball soon also found himself contending with several doughty South Africans intent on snaffling it, or at least stopping it going anywhere quickly. Scotland went through an endless series of pick and go moves and short one-out passes that failed time after time to make a dent in the Springbok defence.
You would hardly call that a new lesson though; greater teams than this Scotland squad have tried and failed to make an impression on South Africa’s defence. What was worrying was the failure to move the ball wider or try something different when Plan A clearly wasn’t working. Which brings us to the next point…
We have failed to learn lessons of the past. Again.
Most disheartening was sending them out with a plan that anyone with half a brain could see was probably not going to work if South Africa were at least half awake. It looked far from the aggressive, astute and flexible plan that worked so well in the summer.
This error was compounded by a failure to react to the situation on the pitch. Greig Laidlaw can be a master tactician but was so harried around the breakdown that perhaps he was unable to play the heads-up rugby he prefers. Elsewhere Sean Lamont has been around long enough that he will have seen this sort of Scotland performance; Ford, Hamilton, Barclay and De Luca likewise. Where was the leadership to diagnose and change things around?
Is it an acceptable excuse from the forwards that almost every time it went out past 10 some sort of mishap occurred, be it a knock on, a miss pass to no-one or a turnover try?
There must be changes
Some things have been little grumbles for a while, but Sunday’s game threw them into stark relief.
Ross Ford has coasted in the No 2 shirt for far too long, big defensive performances glossing over his massive deficiencies in lineout throwing – and this season in hooking – that are costing Scotland dearly. Scotland lost 5 of their first 6 lineouts, decimating any possession they had in the first half. By time he got his throwing sorted and hit a jumper or two, the scoreboard contest was all but over. Pat MacArthur must start next week, if only to keep Ford honest in the longer term.
Another few who have found themselves heroes to Scottish Rugby fans in a much shorter time also need to justify that reputation or make way for someone else to have a chance. Richie Gray and Sean Maitland could find their places under threat – Gray from his younger brother, who looked much livelier in his Sunday cameo.
Ruaridh Jackson may also make way. Duncan Weir looked nervy when he came on but given time to settle could offer a more balanced all round game. He’s improved his areas of weakness greatly in recent years; can the same be said of Jackson?
Having a proper openside definitely helped
John Barclay put in a typically efficient performance, slow-motion replays showing exactly how often he got near or over the ball. He and Strokosch were probably the two main reasons South Africa didn’t score more, with a smothering approach to the tackle area that the men in dark green would have been proud of. While the Springbok breakdown technique prevented him from stealing much, he was able to slow their ball almost as well as they slowed Scotland’s.
With control of the pace of the game arguably even more important against Australia, dropping him now for a non-openside would be folly. Giving Chris Fusaro of Glasgow a go would be applauded in certain circles, but it must be one of those two in the 7 shirt.
For this correspondent at least, this weekend could and should see the Killer Bs reunited, as while an increased pace might give Denton a bit more space, it might suit Johnnie Beattie even more and Johnson is unlikely to keep Kelly Brown out of the side for long. Denton would also offer considerable impact from the bench.
Scotland can’t go out half-cocked
This could also come under the third heading as it is a sin Scotland are often guilty of, but saving the intensity and killer back moves for the last ten minutes of a match is sheer stupidity. With a busy stadium clearly fired up after the anthems, it was extremely sad to see how quickly the atmosphere was allowed to dissipate with silly errors and soft tries gifted to the opposition.
It may have been a match Johnson was not particularly fussed about winning, but he perhaps didn’t need to tell the players that. Against Australia – who may still have a hangover or two lingering – Scotland need to come out of the tunnel ready to play for 80 minutes at full intensity.
Anything less and we simply don’t have the wherewithal to compete with the top rugby nations. That’s a harsh lesson to learn.