Scotland came incredibly close to beating the All Black for the first time ever, but ultimately lost 24-16. So what did we learn? Here are five things from Rory Baldwin...
The All Blacks are still the best at closing out tight games
Scotland came closer than they have in more than a decade to breaking their 109 year drought against New Zealand but the visitors were still able to close out what was a one point game going into the last ten minutes.
Those circumstances alone might have introduced some tension into the home players that would result in them tightening up. But even on a day when their standards were perhaps below the very highest that they set, the All Blacks have remarkable consistency of belief in their system, their team and their own ability to regain control and play their way to victory. For a Scotland side looking to develop something similar under Vern Cotter it was an object lesson.
Scrums are the biggest worry
Under the scrutiny of the Gray brothers, the lineout is firing as it hasn’t done in years even with Ross Ford throwing in. But the physical hooker may also be a big part of the problems with the other set-piece, the scrum. This was epitomised by the opening scrum of the game when the ball sat motionless in the tunnel between the two front rows, with Scotland knowing if they attempted to hook it they would promptly be shoved backwards.
We need to find either a way to get the ball moving more quickly or find a pair of props that can give Ford the stability he needs to do his job title. Our main area of worry is tighthead, with Euan Murray the current starter, but Geoff Cross having a game he’ll want to forget.
I’d like to see a bit of experimentation in this area for the final Tonga test, with Gordon Reid, Cross or Fraser Brown given the opportunity to swap bench spots with the current incumbents and Ryan Grant also waiting in the wings is worth consideration.
Big Vern is building an Ark
Cotter’s DIY SOS makeover of Scotland is far from complete but certain patterns are beginning to emerge. Having taken steps to identify a style of play that suits Scotland, he’s looking for players to fit that style, preferably in twos. So for Adam Ashe you also have Johnnie Beattie; both athletic No 8s, both similar.
This also means the gaps in depth are easier to spot. He’s clearly a fan of the rejuvenated Ford but it’s harder to see who the understudy in a similar mould is. You’ll never find two exactly the same with a player pool as small as Scotland’s but perhaps Fraser Brown fits in slightly better than, say, Scott Lawson. Or maybe we should look for two Scott Lawsons, or two Pat MacArthurs?
The key benefit of this method again follows from study of the Kiwi model, that you can rotate your squad between or during games and not have to alter strategy too much. The exception to this could be at No 10 where Duncan Weir might be suited in certain conditions. But the best tens can alter their own game to suit the approach required, so what we really need is another Finn Russell…
Grant Gilchrist may not be Captain in the Six Nations either
Only just announced as the captain in late October, the Edinburgh lock broke his arm and had to be left out of the Autumn tests. There were mutterings at the time before the injury that having to overlook Jonny Gray might be slightly unfair given his great form for Glasgow (and Gilchrist’s lack thereof) but if Cotter made the same announcement say, next week there would be an uproar.
The younger Gray has been one of the standouts for Scotland over the last two weeks and has run the lineout, carried and tackled with such conviction that if you wanted me to pick a captain for the Six Nations, I’d choose Jonny Gray. Of course the long term future may be a Gilchrist/Gray partnership; but which Gray would you pick?
We’re never really done learning from New Zealand
As a rugby nation we’ve already started trying to learn from New Zealand. Our best young players (and coaches) are sent on the Macphail Scholarship for a summer with the Canterbury player development unit – Russell and Jonny Gray have both been recent beneficiaries.
I haven’t always been the biggest fan of playing games against opposition who have a near certainty of defeating us, so it was unsurprising that New Zealand played an experimental team against Scotland given past results. The only real way to earn respect from All Black players, fans and media is to beat them and even then it would be grudging. We didn’t quite manage that, but the best sign we’re on the right track would be a chance to face the first XV (or close to it) next time.
The choice of a Kiwi coach also seems to be paying dividends even at this early stage. Next year will be the tester, and if it’s a good one after the World Cup dust settles, we’ll have to hope there’s some BT money left for a contract extension.