The rain falls on the just and unjust alike and the downpour that promised to disrupt the English at Murrayfield on Saturday evening failed to arrive until late into the game. By that time Scotland had exhausted all possible chances of redemption, and were painfully and slowly going through the motions of a well-worn damage limitation exercise. The true injustice however of this latest awful chapter in the ‘Saga of Scottish Rugby since 1990’ was that roughly 65,000 people paid to watch this insipid and turgid excuse for a rugby match.
One honest England fan said to me on Saturday night “We were awful but Scotland were worse…”, neatly summing up not only how poor our shrinking reputation at international level is but also how lucky we were that we didn’t come away with a forty or fifty point shellacking. Perhaps that would have been a better result in the long term for us? Perhaps then we would take the decisive and bold action that painfully needs to administered. A long-term sea change of culture, approach and mentality to the game that starts at grass roots level and rises all the way to the top. In the short term a true drubbing on Saturday may have at least led to a review of Scott Johnson’s position with the SRU.
The blame for Saturday’s toothless Calcutta Cup performance should rest with the coach and the coach alone. I stand by my player rating article in the aftermath of Saturday. The tactical approach killed Scotland not the individual player performances. Yes there were errors, yes there were discipline problems and yes there were some bad performances (I’m looking at you Jim Hamilton) but ultimately the game was lost before it started. The team selection was bizarre, the dropping of Kelly Brown inexcusable and the tactical approach a complete joke. The Autumn Test debacle against South Africa should have proven that chip chases to the corners is beyond the capabilities of this particular squad.
Against a big, physical side such as England with a rush defence there are (classically) three ways to get past them. You either go through them, over them or round them. We lack the ball carriers to go through them (Denton aside) and we showed against South Africa we lack the pace on the wings or the kicking skills at 10 to go over them so why not try going round them? It worked for the French…
No, instead we persist with a flawed policy of trying to catch their ‘inexperienced’ wingers out with little dinks over the top. With some rain, a dirty pitch, a hostile atmosphere and some luck we may rattle them into making some errors in their own 22, Right?
Wrong. Instead, Nowell and May countered easily and looked comfortable all game. The Scottish players on the other hand looked confused, frustrated and helplessly hamstrung.
The set piece also limps from bad to worse. Under Andy Robinson, and perhaps more tellingly, Stevie Scott, our line-out was the envy of our Northern Hemisphere rivals. It is now reduced to a calamitous sideshow in which the Murrayfield crowd jeer and ironically cheer with equal pantomime gusto depending on the outcome. Our scrum, particularly the front five are as vulnerable as I can remember and lack any kind of depth on the bench to assist late in the game. I’m not a great fan of Ross Ford but this ‘tactic’ of not hooking the ball and instead playing with three props in the front row is embarrassing. Forwards Coach Jonathan Humphreys needs to take the blame for a lot of this but ultimately not at the expense of the Head Coach.
Classically passive aggressive, Johnson’s post match response was to label his players “naïve” and assert that “The plan was fine, the execution wasn’t great”. No Scott, the plan was awful and subsequently the execution equally flawed. Rumours have persisted for a while now about discord between players and staff in this current set-up. Denton visibly struggled to contain his frustration when being inexplicably substituted before the hour mark on Saturday and one can only assume Kelly Brown must have voiced some serious frustration with the coaching team after the Ireland game to warrant his immediate exile from the dressing room. One thing is for sure all is not well off the field.
On the field, a lot has been said in the aftermath of Saturday. In particular Paul Hayward’s article in the Telegraph suggests Scotland should re-assess our membership to the Six Nations.
I wouldn’t go that far with my own knee jerk but it’s clear things need to change and quickly. It begins with a coaching clear out. Johnson and Humphreys need to go. Johnson both from his Head Coach role and from his future Director of Rugby post too. Put an interim coaching team in place (Townsend, Lineen, Scott, Hodge, whoever…) until Vern Cotter is in place. From there on in we need to rebuild the game in Scotland as a whole. More games, more professional teams, more choice for selectors. All built from the bottom up in a solid and controlled way. The maggots that infest the grass roots of the Murrayfield pitch provide a timely metaphor for the state of rugby in Scotland.
Unless this rot is addressed quickly we will be left behind by our current International counterparts and eventually overtaken by emerging rugby nations. Unfortunately for Johnson and Humphreys, it needs to start with them.