With two weeks to go until the next round of Six Nations games, we Scotland fans now have a short while to sit back and gather our thoughts. So with that in mind, here are some freshly gathered ones.
Frank Hadden has asserted that Scotland will “make an impact” in this tournament, although it remains to be seen whether or not that impact will be the “thud” as we hit the bottom of the table. This impact will have to come on the back of a resounding defeat against Wales and an unlucky defeat marred by the odd dodgy decision and some pretty crap handling against France. Both types of defeat are sadly nothing new to Scotland fans, it’s the big tick in the W column that is missing. The France game was much closer to where we want to be and like the South Africa game in the Autumn, showed that we can compete with the big teams – especially if they have an off-day.
Speaking of “off-days”, how much longer are we going to have to suffer the short end of the stick from referees and officials? My assertion on spotting an Irish referee at kick-off that we would be screwed proved somewhat accurate, with debut referee George Clancy willing to give a try (resulting from obstruction and a forward pass) despite being unsighted at the time, having been tackled by Jason White. If it’s going to take officials being allowed to check further back than the act of grounding with the Video Ref for Scotland (and other smaller nations) to get parity when we need it most, I’m all for it. Jonathan Davies in the BBC’s post match forum characterised this sort of thing as whingeing – but if Wales were on the other end of a dodgy decision or two you’d never hear the end of it from him. After Alain Rolland allowing Martyn Williams to run riot last weekend, I hope the next referee is not Irish. Aren’t they supposed to be our celtic cousins?
The advantage of the type of result we saw against France is that at least we can see the specific areas needed for improvement (rather than just “everything”). Townsend has mentioned he’ll be working on those support lines but there is still some way to go. Surely “If Mike Blair Goes Through A Gap You Follow Him As Fast As You Can” is not that tricky a mantra to learn? It’s short enough to stick on a banner and hang it in the changing room. You could even stick in a couple of F-bombs to make it seem like Jim Telfer is saying it. The Evans boys are clearly on each other’s wavelengths when it comes to attack, but the rest of the team are all tuned in to different stations at times. At least Barclay was listening. Get on to Radio Mike Blair, boys – it’s a good listen as I said as far back as November. Learning not to knock on would be a good one too – that spoiled a pretty solid comeback for Danielli. And of course there’s the whole issue of not having a fully functioning pack at scrum or lineout due to some silly selection choices. That’s a relatively new one though and I hope it doesn’t last much longer than say, the middle of this week. We were all over the French line-out in the first 20 minutes, and after our only lock Jim Hamilton departed, nary a challenge. The less said about the scrum the better, but the lack of fit props in the correct position and a proper second row to push was telling. It may also have affected Ford who showed up less in the loose than he did in the early periods. Former Highland man Moray Low may have done enough to earn a start against Italy and perhaps Dickinson will revert to the bench – or Chunk’s number 1 shirt?
The defence was solid though, and the breakdown much more efficiently patrolled. Strokosch has surely done enough to get his name on the team sheet for the remaining games, although such is his enthusiasm for playing rugby we have to hope he doesn’t injure himself turning out for Gloucester this weekend – or that Hadden doesn’t use this as an excuse not to pick him. For the backline, Blair, Godman, Evans, Morrison, Evans, Paterson, Southwell was pretty effective but the ball they got was still not brilliant. Again Cusiter showed real zip with his service and we may see him appear earlier in the coming weeks as a like-for-like and captain-for-captain substitution as against Wales. Can he direct an attack as well as Blair though?
Hopefully against Italy things will be a bit better for us – we are now left with them, Ireland and England: three matches we would have targeted for a win at the start. Italy are still beatable even with a proper scrum-half and we need to make sure the little class we do have tells against them. Ireland used to be our whipping boys in the 80s and early 90s, but this team look the real deal now with a Munster-like edge up front and Leinster’s class in the backs – Heaslip in particular is starting to make a major run for the Lions 8 shirt. England still have shown little to make us truly quake but they did improve against Wales and will always be fierce comptetitors at home. A few years ago, big Nathan was seen as a penalty liability and Euan Murray was the guy who had that strange accident, discovered God and disappeared off to Northampton. Now, it turns out they are cornerstones of this team and the way we want to play. Hines and Murray can’t come back quickly enough.
UPDATE: Euan Murray is hoped to be fit to play against Italy. Other (not too serious) injuries are Simon Danielli, Phil Godman, Mike Blair, Moray Low, Jason White and Kelly Brown – all “are expected to resume training in the next two to three days” while Graeme Morrison is recovering from an ankle injury. Italy tickets are still available.
DOUBLE UPDATE: I watched the match again on BBC iPlayer and that pass was definitely forward! Chunk’s offside/onside tackle on the French scrum half that led to Kelly Brown’s “try” is much less clear cut. If the ball was out, it’s a split second thing and 9/10 times would be ruled offside. It is also increasingly clear that Phil Godman had a pretty good game – check out the pace he displays haring for the corner before extricating himself from a ruck to set up Evans’ try with his favourite inside pass. Is it just me, or is he faster than most of the other 10s on offer? Jones, O’ Gara, Goode, even Cipriani – he may not have other aspects they have to their game (yet), but I’m pretty sure he has them beaten for leg speed.