As I entered Scotland’s World Cup base yesterday in St. Andrews I felt a strange sort of atmosphere. A tension.
The word tension may cause many to think of people at each other or of friction between two rival factions. This was not the case. Instead this tension was an emotional one. A tension that occurs when you have individuals that are happy and relaxed coexisting with those fretting about making a point.
In a brief foray into the inner sanctum of the Scotland camp I saw firsthand this bipolar behaviour.
I briefly met a Ryan Grant aware of his lot, but glad of a camp that had him “in the best shape of his life”.
I saw a Ross Rennie looking more happy than any one man should be.
I saw a Geoff Cross beaming at everyone who came near him in the hallway.
I even saw a Dougie Hall wandering around looking ever so slightly confused.
Now I must chastise myself for having looked at people in this critical manner. Of course there would be a myriad of emotions flying round a camp that is 5 days away from knowing its collective fate, let alone getting a Test match out of the way. Who knows how an ordinary person like you or I would act in such a situation?
Of course this is a group of men meant for a purpose. Meant for international competition. Sports bring out the rawest emotions in people, and in the physically and mentally demanding world of international rugby you need that emotional connection.
Sometimes, though, the connection between piqued emotion and the cold hard reality of a situation can be lost.
Once the hard stares, smiles and hallway struts had bent round the corner I was left with a room full of rugby writers and a string of individuals sent to be scrutinised. A procession of players meant to give us all a message of how Scotland would be on Saturday against Italy.
Immediately I was set at ease as a tandem performance by Mike Blair and Al Kellock ensured us of the focus and drive behind giving a good, physical Scotland performance before the squad was finalised and World Cup kit bags packed. I was particularly impressed with the mentality of Kellock: he didn’t shy away from the contentions of selection or the importance of his own role. He calmly told us how it was.
“There are leaders all over this team. That makes it even more special to be chosen as captain for this weekend,” Kellock assured the press corps. Later he stated that in every game “you need to have a good set piece, first and foremost.” He was even confident enough to say “I haven’t changed anything I’ve done in the last 10 weeks.” Kellock is positive and single-mided. He knows what needs to be done for the team.
I sound fairly taken by the Captain, but in truth it is an approach that a leader (particularly a Scots Leader) must take. I even share his positive message going forward.
“You learn game knowledge. You pick things up in training, but a Test match is a different experience. We showed [against Ireland] that we hadn’t played a Test match for quite a while.
“I thought overall last week was a positive- to get a win against an Ireland team is a big thing. That will be the same for this weekend. Stuff that didn’t go as well we will be looking to correct and work hard on through the week and if we can implement that and make the changes necessary we are confident we can do well.”
I, too, am confident we will do well. I am also confident that Kellock is secure in his position. Both as a starting World Cup second row and as Scotland’s Test match Captain. I have no doubts he will be the Captain when Scotland play Romania.
He is also an emotional barometer.
In a building where there was a different personality hiding behind every door it was great to hear from the man who told you exactly what the harsh realities were. Sure he could break it up with anecdotes about spending his teenage years with New Zealand grannies who knew more about rugby than him, but there is more comfort in his honest and earnest lines.
I point this out because I also saw Kellock’s polar opposite being interviewed.
The parade ended with Euan Murray being sat down and asked about his chances of World Cup selection. He bemused me with his confidence, and confused the others with his answers.
He flitted from telling us that “my goal was to be fit for this game [against Italy]”, to “I was really pleased for Geoff Cross” getting his MOTM award against Ireland, and even stating, mystically, that “We’re always learning- I don’t think anyone in the World knows everything about scrummaging.”
However, I could sense unease when he refused to be drawn on questions about whether he put pressure on himself by not playing on Sundays as well as being unfit for some of the build-up. After a bit of cajoling and avoiding direct questioning Murray simply stated that his approach may have changed because “we all become wiser.”
And so it ended. An absence of cold, hard reality.
I left the hotel in St, Andrews trying to collect my thoughts. I understood the differing moods of the players. Everyone would be nervous and anxious hoping to make the World Cup 30. I also understood the focus and calculation of Blair and Kellock. I even understood why Robinson would want to test guys like Cusiter and Murray.
What I didn’t understand was why they appeared to be so nailed on for a tour spot and were, Murray in particular, prepared for such an eventuality.
Earlier in the afternoon Dr James Robson, the team doctor, assured me that in the coaches eyes both Cusiter and Murray were fully fit for international rugby. I now assume both will be used against Italy. I now assume Scotland will pull together to beat Italy.
Ultimately, though, I now assume Cusiter and Murray will join an assured Al Kellock on the plane to New Zealand.