(aka The Frank Hadden Story)
That’s the one word that describes so much of Scotland’s performance last Saturday, from the coaching staff down to the players. Scottish rugby are the masters of turning gold in crap, whether that is on the pitch, on the management bench or up in the comfort of the padded seats for the Blazers.
Scotland botched the whole start to the 6 Nations and were on the back foot from the minute the team was announced. There was genuine excitement in the lead up to the tournament and whilst it would have been nice to fantasise about Grand Slam heroics, most Scotland fans were just looking forward to a steady showing, a couple of wins and sign of greater attacking intent. Instead Hadden chose a side that was a mix of players playing out of position and, in some cases, out of form. As soon as the squad was announced the wind was taken out the sails as it was apparent that Hadden had gone for a lot of the old familiar faces that have been at the heart of the Scotland team over the last couple of disappointing seasons.
To compound this the players generally failed to rise to the occasion and in a couple of cases they made suicidal decisions. Simon Webster was a man under a lot of pressure: a public outcry (even if not reflected in the national press) had surrounded his inclusion instead of the on form (on fire?) Thom Evans. With this in mind, it is understandable that he was eager to put on a display and to make a mark. Alas, having lined his man up he decided to tackle like an idiot, failing to lead with his shoulder and choosing instead his napper. As a result he knocked himself out, and it is surprising that he managed to last as long as he did. Geoff Cross had a debut to forget, literally. Anyone who saw him during the national anthems would have seen how much the occasion meant to him and I was hopeful he would go on to have a good debut. Unfortunately events overtook him and in the end his challenge on a flying Welshman was both reckless and feckless.
So where does this leave us with just 4 days to go until they face the French in Paris?
The easy option is to say that that we’re doomed.
However, all might not be lost. For 20 minutes at the end of the game on Sunday, Scotland started to play a lot flatter and were able to attack the Welsh line. Max Evans scored a corker of a try and I was quite impressed with Paterson when he came on. The key this weekend will be the pack. It is essential that Strokosch is brought back in as his ability to battle and be aggressive will be vital to securing the breakdown. The Welsh were continually flopping over onto the Scottish side of the ruck, and whilst the ref chose not to punish this, the Scottish forwards should have made sure they didn’t want to do this twice. Instead they stood back and did nothing and the whole performance suffered from a lack of controlled and focussed aggression. The news that Hines is not available is a blow but there are suitable direct replacements waiting in the wings and I for one would very much like to see Kellock get a game. He will at least provide expert knowledge of the position and also isn’t afraid to stick the boot in if necessary.
In the backs out should go Lamont (looked off-pace and uninterested), Webster (injured and ineffective) and, unfortunately, Cairns. Cairns had a decent game but since he got almost no service he had little chance to shine and with Max Evans performing so well when he came on you have to feel that Evans has earned the start. Also coming in should be Paterson on one wing and Thom Evans on the other.
Like Rory I thought Cusiter came on and gave a very strong performance. He looked like he got the backs playing flatter and as a result the speed in which Scotland attacked, and broke the gain line, was actually fairly impressive. Cusiter also has the knowledge of the French game and his time overseas has obviously improved his game. However, unlike Rory, I’d stick with Blair. This is a guy who was nominated for world player of the year and whilst he didn’t have a great performance against the Welsh he was another player who was totally undermined by the misfiring pack (thanks Frank!). He deserves another start.
The French lost on Saturday in a cracking match against the Irish but they looked like they had a soft belly. Don’t get me wrong I think they pose a big attacking threat but if made to face a back line full of pace I believe there are weaknesses that the Scotland team can target. To me the French looked off the pace in the final 20 minutes, so if Scotland can stay within 10 points going into the last quarter they will have a chance to get something from the game.
Finally, one request to the Scotland team – make sure the first tackle counts. Too many times on Sunday it took multiple Scotland players to halt the Welsh and if we allow the French the opportunity to off-load in the tackle we leave ourselves open to attack. Hit your men and hit them hard (but not hard enough to knock yourself out cold!).
My head says that France will probably win this game but I do think Scotland can go to Paris and put on a good performance. If they perform to their true abilities then a result might just come.
I’ll be back later once Hadden has announced the squad – fingers crossed he doesn’t make the same mistakes as last week.