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Scotland What The…?

The Heineken Cup is not quite over, but if your underpants have a lion rampant on them, then chances are you’ll be watching most of these pool games with mild disinterest. Watching Edinburgh to see if they could get any poorer has its own morbid attraction and tomorrow we have Chris Paterson at 10 against Dan Parks, which would be a novelty if it was on TV. Parks, Nathan Hines, Simon Danielli, Joe Ansbro, Jason White, Rory Lamont, Jack Cuthbert, Simon Taylor and Sean Lamont are to some degree still involved too and so will be playing with full effort.

But you can’t escape it.

Over the hill there, a hubbub of noise, excitement, drama, face-painting and beer is creeping ever closer, bringing the promise of spring. It’s the Six Nations.

I’ve been a bit busy of late so my esteemed colleague A.D has weighed in with several hefty preview pieces which are well worth a read if you missed them. Given the time of year there is also a possibility that Al will come out of exile and whisper his sweet nothings into your RSS feeds. If we lose to Ireland or Wales you can almost guarantee it.

So what of Scotland’s chances? The problem is working out how to analyse it.

You could look at everyone else: as A.D pointed out many of our opponents are suffering from key injuries at just the wrong time. Wales in particular have been hammered by the thunder of the Broken Body Gods. England have lost several front-line forwards and a captain, while Ireland’s team is less affected by injury but ageing in places and out of form. But as some of Leinster’s play in the Heineken Cup this year has shown, they can still cut you open if you don’t pay attention. France have the core of a squad and the usual seven or eight wildcards (even in a World Cup year) that suggests Lievremont is still not totally happy with his lot – but he has a lot to choose from. Italy should benefit from inclusion in the Magners, but you might not see that for a year or two as more and more players (hopefully) drift back from France. But Parisse is back and he tends to drag them up a notch.

With thinking like that you could almost be forgiven for saying: well, everyone else is crocked so it is France to win, Scotland second.

Of course, once you turn the microscope inwards the picture is less rosy. If you actually look at the results rather than basking in the warm fuzzy glow you get thinking about Andy Robinson, last Six Nations was a decidedly mixed bag, with several schizophrenic performances and a couple of good ones. The Wales game was both. We lost to Italy, something a team with test wins in Argentina and against South Africa and Australia should not really be doing. Despite the grit that Robbo has brought back, we are still over-reliant on Parks to kick us up the scoreboard, and what we need in midfield is distribution rather than bulk or a big boot. Still, the passionate rearguard actions that we have seen in autumns past could be enough to keep us in contention at Paris or Twickers, and then having Parks on the pitch starts to make sense. Twickenham may still be feeling smug after dismantling Australia, but you can bet Andy Robinson would love nothing more than to wipe the smile off their faces as South Africa did.

Though largely unaffected by injury (sorry Phil) we do have a couple that will affect things. Cusiter’s loss means an out of sorts Mike Blair is the backup to Rory Lawson. Morrison’s absence in midfield will have a massive impact on our defensive organisation, and make the 10-12 channel a lot more appealing for lumpy opposition runners – especially if Dan Parks is standing on the 10 side of it. His replacement will likely be one from De Luca (just back from injury), Ansbro (playing out of position for Saints) or Grove (in the squad by a hair), and whoever is going to step up to fill Morrison’s boots will have to grow a couple of sizes.

Glasgow have shown enough guts this season to think that if you keep the core of that team (Kellock, Barclay, Vernon, possibly Gray, Harley or Low) up front, Scotland will also show the passion that has served them well in the recent past and that seems to have been lacking from Edinburgh of late. Chunk and Ross Ford have upped their game in the loose at just the right time and – provided they make it to the tournament intact – alongside Euan Murray, Moray Low or Geoff Cross we should field a useful if not devastating front row unit.

The amount of ball Glasgow’s outside backs have had since Morrison got injured might suggest a more open Scotland than we saw last year, almost by accident. Ruaridh Jackson should get enough game time to get him on the plane to New Zealand later in the year as the number 2 number 10. Our wingers are often chastised for not scoring enough tries, but getting the ball in the right place at the right time rarely happens in the added pressure that comes at international level. When it does happen at Magners level (Visser notwithstanding) both teams have scored tries.

Fix that, and we could be on our way: we have a squad that is familiar but not ageing, fresh but not inexperienced, mostly stocked with our top-line players and not massively ridden with injuries.

Can you say that about any of the others?

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