Watching Scotland feels at times like whack-a-mole; put one thing to bed only for a previous problem to re-emerge, writes a frustrated Rory Baldwin
Was the World Cup all a dream?
That righteous anger over Craig Joubert‘s dodgy decision in the Australia game all seems a distant memory, and instead Saturday felt like a slip back to the start of last year with Stuart Hogg playing a blinder in a stuttering team; not a team that should be in a World Cup semi final. Scotland players and fans must wonder how they stop the team from repeating the same basic errors time and again, when they must have been analysing and identifying them in every post match session for years, whether in the team room or the public house.
Do Scotland have enough workhorses?
Reading Tom English’s excellent book “The Grudge” on the 1990 Grand Slam decider it is interesting that many of the players that day (on both sides) described themselves as not the most talented in the world, but dedicated to being the best they could, training the hardest and offering all of themselves in order to make up the ground on more gifted players challenging for their shirt, or their opposite number. The Scotland team that year – one of our greatest – scraped through the preceding games, winning almost by attrition and determination, not blinding displays of total rugby. The difference between talent and greatness seems to be dedication, concentration, hard work and an ultimate desire to wear the shirt. Do we have those sort of players? Surely Scotland can produce these traits in professional sportsmen?
By contrast too many of our modern day workhorses go missing for spells or whole games at a time. Project players have often been discussed in these columns but looking at WP Nel and John Hardie since they pulled on a Scotland shirt, they have been good or better almost without fail. John Barclay might have been in the wilderness for a few years but his performance in the first half was brilliant and showed his younger challengers an example. You can see their determination to make the hard yards, you can see that they want to drag the team over the line.
Simply having two or three guys playing great rugby is not enough to win regular tests if the opposition are half way competent, as Scotland fans have known over the last two grim decades. Many of the players we need to front up were only present in the first half of the game when for spells Scotland were the better team. Credit is due to England’s defence and increased intensity in the second half but at this level and for the game Scotland want to play, their ball carriers cannot afford to go missing, ever.
Poor decision making and a lack of aggression from the pack means the Scotland backs are having to do their “game-changing” in areas of the park where little actual influence is possible. Which leads me to…
Our game-changers don’t change many games
It’s pretty clear who the potential “stars” are in this Scotland team. The back line is littered with talent, and for the first time in recent memory we’ve got guys who we’d pick in our Fantasy XV over the opposition equivalent. The issue in the backs as with the pack above is still with consistency of performance: not enough of our game changers are doing it consistently. Stuart Hogg had a great game against England, but then Finn Russell and Tommy Seymour made crucial mistakes and Bennett and Maitland were sadly anonymous. Matt Scott had a fine game in defence but only started making the darting, hard charges at which he excels – and which Duncan Taylor or Alex Dunbar might be equally capable of – in the dying minutes when Scotland were chasing the game
It’s a big ask, but imagine if these guys all turned it on in one game? Scotland could be unstoppable – and you only have to look at the way Glasgow took Munster apart in the Guinness PRO12 final last year for an example of how devastating (and entertaining) it can be if done correctly.
Injuries have hurt our depth
Scotland are never going to have the player resources of England, but the bench was not strong enough and Vern Cotter didn’t go to it until game was already slipping away. Was it a lack of confidence? Of course he’d never say so, but in some cases he was asking players who aren’t (yet) as good as the ones they replaced to chase a game. England were bringing equal or better players off the bench, and it showed the difference from the World Cup where Scotland had a mostly fit squad.
The undoubtedly talented Zander Fagerson became Scotland’s youngest prop in 60 years but as soon as Nel and Dickinson were off, the scrum crumpled. Two players that did make an impact when given brief opportunities were Stuart McInally and Duncan Taylor and could perhaps come into consideration to replace Ross Ford and Sean Maitland at some point in the tournament, although the former is unlikely to get the heave-ho just yet.
High balls and mauls are still the enemy
Hogg was good under the many bombs launched in his direction but others when given the same challenge by England fumbled the ball and gave it away. Can’t Nathan Hines get an Aussie rules consultant in?
Scotland’s box kicks were signposted at least 30 seconds before Greig Laidlaw even touched the ball, meaning they were just giving away possession, while a well placed effort from the opposition becomes for them at worst a 50/50 chance of getting the ball back. Lineout drives and mauls are a similar problem stemming back to at least this time last year, and England used them increasingly until Jonny Gray had to come off in case he was carded for repeated collapsing.
The problem it gives Vern Cotter and his coaching staff for next week in Wales is that with two very easily exploitable ways to steal yards and milk penalties from this Scotland team, all the opposition sides have to do against Scotland is defend until they get a chance to use these tactics and/or wait for an inevitable implosion.
When their weaknesses are so easily spotted, the wins that Scotland so desperately need to instil belief become much harder to come by.