There was a change of rhetoric coming out of the Scotland camp in the wake of the defeat to Ireland. Players were not compared to a fine wine, rugby was not compared to making love with a beautiful woman and there was no mention of statistics and swimwear. Instead we got it straight. Scotland were “dreadful”.
There was also some honesty about the development of young players coming through the system with Johnny Gray being highlighted as an exception rather than the rule. David Ferguson expanded on this in his excellent article in this week’s Scotsman (essential reading if you haven’t already picked it up.) A late night tweet between senior players also seemed to hint at discipline problems within the squad appearing to suggest that some were more interested in their phones than listening to instructions.
The coaches promised changes and whilst many will welcome the decision to give Chris Fusaro his debut questions still remain about the continued selection of Ross Ford. McArthur drops out of the team altogether and is replaced by the “experienced” Scott Lawson who can hardly be described as widening Scotland’s playing pool ahead of the World Cup. It’s difficult to see what McArthur is doing wrong on the pitch. We can only assume he’s having a shocking time in training.
Looking beyond Johnson’s selection decisions it’s time to turn our attention to the Calcutta Cup and how Scotland can bring the trophy back a Murrayfield stadium that has seen just one English try since 2004.
1. Can we kick it?
Nowell and Goode conceded 8 turnovers against France with Nowell culpable for France’s first try. Nowell in particular seems vulnerable under pressure and Scotland would do well to target him in defence and fire the ball straight down his throat especially in wet conditions. Johnson says he has picked Tommy Seymour for his aerial skills so we can expect Scotland to put the English back line under pressure.
Weir, Laidlaw and even Dunbar showed some decent awareness of gaps opening up behind the Irish defence. Those kicks weren’t executed particularly well but a little more composure and accuracy and Scotland could find themselves in some decent field position. However if Scotland are going to kick England into submission they’ll have to make sure the forwards are able to capitalise on field position.
2. “Hook you daft *******! Hook!”
I posted the above tweet during the game on Sunday and judging by the reaction I wasn’t alone in screaming at the television. Laidlaw had fed the ball into the scrum and it sat there in the channel. Ford made no attempt to strike it with Best eventually putting him out of his misery and stealing it against the head. The ball was lost 5 metres from the Irish line. Unforgiveable.
The continued selection of Ross Ford is baffling. He contributes in defence and punches holes in attack but that’s not the two main roles of a hooker. The clue is in the name and Ford has been left behind by his inability to adapt to the rule changes. The line out was no better with Scotland loosing 5. That might not all be down to Ford but Scotland were lucky O’Connell was struck down with man flu last weekend. They won’t be so lucky against Lawes.
It’s hard to see Scott Johnson’s thinking here. The Murrayfield pitch is a mess and if scrums stay up they’re unlikely to move forward. Unless Ford has suddenly developed the ability to hook in 6 days it’s going to be a long long long 80 minutes of rugby.
Scotland have not had the same turnaround time as England and injuries and the weather have hampered training time. It seems unlikely the forwards will have had much of an opportunity to sort out any problems. Scotland’s set piece will be operating on a wing and a prayer.
3. Play dirty
When Scotland went to Dublin without an openside they weren’t so much taking a knife to a gun fight as taking a blunted plastic spoon into war. It told with Chris Henry unlucky not to get man of the match.
Scott Johnson said Chris Fusaro had got the nod ahead of Kelly Brown on form and on account of the fact he’s a “ground feeder.” The state of the pitch and the weather will make for unpleasant conditions and Johnson is hoping Fusaro’s relatively diminutive stature can be put to good use in winning the ball in the ruck. Joe Marler says England haven’t talked much about the condition of the pitch whereas Scotland appear to be building their game plan around it. That could give them an edge.
Earlier this week Budge Poutney said Scotland need to get nasty and try and irritate the English. In Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Danny Care England have three players with a history of disciplinary issues. If Scotland can capitalise on this and keep the referee on side they may gain the upper hand. Scotland’s problem may lie with Jim Hamilton who, in the absence of Kelly Brown, is the elder statesman of the forward pack. As he emerged from under a pile of Irishmen he was greeted by Craig Joubert.
“Jim, a word,” said Joubert, “the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot going on there and you’re involved in every one.”
“I’m only looking after myself,” came the reply.
In the absence of the calming influence of Kelly Brown the Scottish forwards must make sure they don’t go native.
Laidlaw’s speed from the base of the ruck has been criticised by a number of commenters on here and elsewhere. That criticism is unwarranted. It is wrong to compare Laidlaw’s performance with Cusiter’s. Laidlaw had to strike a balance between getting the ball away quickly but not desperately flinging it and hoping. Cusiter’s role was to crank up the tempo.
On a couple of occasions Laidlaw looked like he was struggling for options. That is the fault of those outside him, both forwards and backs. If Scotland can stick with a regular 9/10 combination an understanding will develop and options will appear more readily. You have to feel sorry for Laidlaw who has been kept wondering which 10 he will be playing alongside every week at national and club level. It’s a testament to his abilities that he’s still able to boss games as well as he does.
Scotland had plenty of attacking options on Sunday but lacked composure. At one point Scotland had a clear overlap with Weir throwing a long looping pass to the wing rather than moving the ball quickly through the hands. By the time the ball reached Maitland the defensive line had shifted and the chance was lost.
There is no denying that Scotland looked dangerous for short periods on Sunday. A little more composure and a little more faith and understanding of each other and the rest will come.
5. Don’t stop believing
England are vulnerable to complacency when they’re winning. That cost them against France. Unfortunately Scotland aren’t able to chase games. That needs to change. Part of that is down to player mentality which we talked about last week but another part is down to the home crowd.
The French crowd played their part in sticking by their team last week and there’s no doubt that transfers to the players. Scotland players need to play for 80 minutes if they are to win but the crowd must believe a win is possible right up until the whistle goes.
The atmosphere at Murrayfield has improved year on year but the crowd still has a tendency to fall silent if things aren’t going Scotland’s way. Players have a part to play in creating that atmosphere but that responsibility is reciprocal. If fans can’t get up and find their voice for this fixture they have no right to expect the players to do likewise.
Highland Cathedral is never going to catch on but there’s still a chance Loch Lomond might. It may even be time to bring back the old classic and tell the English where they can stick their chariots. One way or another Scotland’s 16th player must silence the English both on the pitch and off it if Scotland are going to win.
Scotland team to play England in the RBS 6 Nations Championship at Murrayfield on Saturday 8 February, kick-off 5pm
15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) 16 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
14 Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) 5 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
13 Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) 4 caps, 1 try, 5 points
12 Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby) 17 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
11 Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors) 83 caps, 12 tries, 60 points
10 Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors) 9 caps, 1 try, 2 conversions, 9 points
9 Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby) CAPTAIN 25 caps, 3 tries, 23 conversions, 56 penalties, 229 points
1 Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors) 14 caps
2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby (72 caps, 2 tries, 10 points)
3 Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors) 24 caps
4 Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) 4 caps
5 Jim Hamilton (Montpellier) 51 caps, 1 try, 5 points
6 Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) 5 caps
7 Chris Fusaro (Glasgow Warriors) uncapped
8 David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby) 18 caps
16 Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons) 39 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
17 Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby) 31 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
18 Geoff Cross (Edinburgh Rugby) 24 caps, 1 try, 5 points
19 Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) 2 caps
20 Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier) 27 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
21 Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors) 65 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
22 Duncan Taylor (Saracens) 7 caps
23 Max Evans (Castres) 38 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
Referee: Jerome Garces (France). Assistant referee: George Clancy (Ireland) and Mike Fraser (New Zealand). TMO: Eric Gauzins (France).