Despite the Scottish cessation of activity at the weekend there was still plenty of rugby being played. We saw Australia show how antiquated South Africa’s rugby may have become in just a few short years. We saw Wales expose England’s lack of skills throughout an entire XV. We saw the French recline and accept gifts from Ireland.
Watching these games will be invaluable to Scotland because they framed some obtrusive issues that many in sport -particularly in England- have danced around. These issues give us cause, not only to look at our future opponents, but to assess ourselves as well.
What could we learn from Wales 19- 9 England?
Firstly, I have definitely learned that the rugby press in England are as negative and panic-stricken as a Scot when they suddenly assess errors. The Times had ratings by Stephen Jones and he gave Shontayne Hape 1/10. No international rugby player has ever played that bad in the history of Sport, let alone in an England jersey in recent years (even when a young Mathew Tait was picked apart from a then gregarious Gavin Henson I would have given him a 4 for effort and passing ability at least)!
The issue with England is that without holes for a 9 to run past, distracting forwards, a 10 who is kicking imperiously and individuals like Ashton, Foden/Armitage and A.N. Backrower at their running best they are half of the team they could be.
Johnson can load the rest of the team with as many steady, one-dimensional professionals like Hape, an unattached Shaw, a 2011 Sheridan, Deacon, Steve Thompson, Matt Banahan, Hendre Fourie and Charlie Hodgeson as he likes: the issue is still one of explosion and skill.
England will still out-size Scotland across the board in NZ. They will also still rely on certain individuals to create a game.
On Saturday Toby Flood tried to take the ball to the line after a phase, ever so slightly feinted inside, created the illusion that he may spring forth, himself, before digging a tiny pass off of his outside shoulder to the streaming winger cutting a line in the middle of the park.
This now familiar tactic did not pay off.
There was no Chris Ashton fizzing onto the pass and shucking his way to the line. No half gap burst into a glaring try-scoring opportunity. Only Mark Cueto looking slightly out of place and ever so flat.
This highlights to me the need for talents. Ashton can make Toby Flood look like a genius and further demonstrate how toothless England’s centres can be if Tindall is backed up by a Hape or Banahan. It also shows the need for an athlete in the back row to match Courtney Lawes dynamism, because Fourie, Easter and Doran-Jones will not fashion opportunities like a Croft or a Haskell.
Furthermore if Martin Johnson takes Charlie Hodgeson to the World Cup then the belligerent and ballsy coach MJ had forced himself to become in the last few 6N will have regressed back to selecting seasoned makeweights and the old reliable corps of his mates.
He desperately needs his individuals to restore faith against Ireland.
From an Albacentric viewpoint, however, I have also learnt a few things.
England need their individuals to continue forcing progress. Ireland almost collapsed the crutch of ageing Munstermen Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara trying to fight back against the French. South Africa are in danger of running John Smit into the ground forcing him and Victor Matfield to do what they did in 2007.
Everyone has their go to guys.
A week today Scotland name their RWC squad. Many of those selected will play against Italy. The fans will expect to see some semblance of the team expected to play Romania. They will expect to see our key individuals in action in the last competitive outing before our World Cup bow.
Like everyone else Scotland rely on key individuals. For me, though, performance will come down to the few during the RWC. We will need Kellock and Ford (even though a man under so much pressure and facing so much derision should NEVER be given the added crippling pressure of being Vice-Captain) to knuckle down and deliver constant basics. We need the voice of Paterson around the squad, even when he is not playing. Most importantly, though, we need the calm and driven influence of Kelly Brown guiding Barclay and doing Kellock’s dirty work.
The coaches, too, must do their bit.
Robinson has his message ingrained now. For example running under rucking nets after learning to hit the sweet-spot of a Collision King or doing 2 hours of mauling are just some of many added extras because the players know how Robinson wants contact points to work. The pressure, instead, is on Gregor Townsend to ensure that Ansbro’s try from a set-piece move was no fluke. We now need to see his stamp.
In intense competition you need leaders. England are slowly realising they are nothing without theirs. Ireland turn into scrappers without even 3 names. Wales are thanking their lucky stars that some youths like Warburton, Hook and Priestland could blossom into leaders on a grand stage.
Scotland have such personnel. Ones that have to play. They have to be in form. They will have to drag everyone else with them.
After all, the rugby will come thick and fast before the individuals have time to put their hands up.