By Rory Baldwin
We’re learning how to learn
It is often quite hard to assemble a list of five things that any given Scotland team will have learned, when all evidence is often that they’ve learned very little from past mistakes, fixing one thing only for another flaw to appear. So the most satisfying thing about the manner of the 29-18 victory over France on Sunday was that it was actually well-deserved, based on a foundation of high accuracy, high intensity rugby.
The scrum platform was maintained, lineout performance was improved and there was good discipline and good ball retention. There are always things to work on – Scotland again fell off the pace for spells in each half – but if you are looking for the baseline for where Scotland need to go from here, the last two games have been it.
Will the jitters ever go away?
Even after Tim Visser’s wonder-try, and Greig Laidlaw kicking a penalty to take Scotland well out of reach on the scoreboard, there was still a lingering suspicion that somehow they might implode and France might still sneak it, even a French team stumbling as badly as this one. We remember Wales in 2010.
That is the biggest mental block that Scotland fans will have to overcome – we believe in the team, but do we believe that they believe in themselves? The hope is that now the players are showing signs of putting such dread in the past, the fans can too. There was certainly a welcome resurgence of the Murrayfield roar and the odd bit of singing too.
That Scotland kept their heads and defended strongly to see out the win will probably be most pleasing for Vern Cotter. Twice Scotland have been superior on the pitch, and twice now they have taken the win. The bench was a lot more capably managed too, fed on as required and allowed to play their way into the game so that even when WP Nel went off, Moray Low still nabbed a scrum penalty of his own.
There aren’t too many changes in approach required for next week, it just has to be more of the same, but better, and all the way through.
The team is getting a lot easier to pick
The players are making Cotter’s job a lot easier and the spine of this Scotland side pretty much picks itself to face Ireland in Dublin next weekend. Where previously there were ifs or maybes in certain positions, the likes of Richie Gray and Greig Laidlaw have settled all question marks next to their numbers with performances full of heart and effort. Gray in particular was at his rampaging best against the players he faces week in, week out for Castres and also seems to have added a little of his brothers quiet efficiency in defence.
There are perhaps a couple of selection questions still to answer though. Where previously the question was “Who will partner Alex Dunbar in the centre?” the question is now: “Who will partner Duncan Taylor,” with the Saracens man once again in superb form. The answer for next weekend is likely to remain Dunbar, but come the summer tour to Japan both Mark Bennett and Matt Scott will return to the equation and Cotter will be looking to build as many comfortable combinations as possible out of a deep pool of talent.
With Finn Russell to be monitored this week under the return-to-play protocols, the other question mark is at ten. Pushed into service from the bench after only five minutes, Peter Horne attacked the line with verve and is one of the finer passers of the ball that Scotland possess. Against Ireland he may get a start, to show that he has banished all demons from his Six Nations debut last season.
What else can you say about Stuart Hogg?
It wouldn’t be a complete reflection of the match without mentioning the superb Man of the Match Stuart Hogg, who scored one try, and set up another with his overhead, backwards flick to Visser. In possibly his finest Scotland performance, he also took a long range penalty and ably took on touch-kicking duties when Russell went off very early on. The extra territory his mammoth boot gains his pack actually suggests he should retain these duties and take the pressure off his playmaker, whoever that may be.
For many fans outside of Scotland, Hogg has for the last few years been one of the few Scotland players they would pick in their own side, or a fantasy Lions team. There were still question marks over his temperament, but frustration has been at a premium in Scottish ranks for the last few years and now that things are on the up, Hogg is maturing along with a Scotland team starting to play some very nice rugby. He is also no longer the only attacking threat, as both Horne and Taylor illustrated.
A team performance
Hogg and poster boy Richie Gray aside, Scotland will never be a team of galacticos. They can quite easily fail through mistakes by one or two players, but when they succeed it is always as a team. Against France the team were tackling for each other – heck, they even managed to defend a trundling French maul at one point. Singling out newer players like Duncan Taylor or John Hardie tends to ignore the Al Dickinsons and John Barclays of this world, old heads who have been toiling away in losing teams for years – both were first capped after Scotland last beat France in 2006. Or Tommy Seymour, who didn’t score this time but under the radar snaffled the penalty that Taylor turned into a tap-and-go solo try.
They finally play like men enjoying their rugby
The next step then could be the toughest, against a wounded Ireland team who put together plenty of all-court rugby of their own against Italy and whose previous iteration handed out a thumping to plenty of these Scotland players on the last ‘Super Saturday’ in 2015.
It will be Cotter’s chance to see how this brand of Scotland team handle punching above their weight.