The manner in which Scotland won against Argentina last week was about as expected as a probe landing on a comet or Vanessa Mae being found guilty of match fixing. However Big Vern Cotter’s decision to give his players permission to cause organised chaos paid off and aside from a slightly disappointing end to the match this should go down as one of the great Scottish performances at Murrayfield.
The All Blacks arrive on Saturday and offer a bigger test for a revitalised Scotland. Steve Hansen has named a weakened starting XV (if the ABs can ever truly field a “weakened” team) and so this may be an opportunity for Scotland to record a historic victory.
In advance of that we’re going to return to the five questions we posed at the start of the Autumn Tests to see what, if anything, we learned from the game against the Pumas.
1. Russell? Heathcote? Weir?
Russell put in an assured performance against the Pumas and his decision making was near perfect. The only slight gripe is that he missed two tackles out of Scotland’s total of five missed tackles. However it was inevitable that the Argentineans would try and target such an international nube and Russell will have learned much and taken a lot of confidence from his 65 minute Murrayfield debut.
Weir replaced Russell and will probably want to forget his 15 minute cameo. Scotland’s organised chaos game plan had seen players take genuine chances and make intelligent decisions, something most fans know the players are capable of but have rarely seen at international level. Weir’s decisions harked back to Scotland of old and the decision to take a tap penalty inside Scotland’s 22 with 30 seconds on the clock was not so much organised chaos as batcrap crazy. Still Weir has shown he is capable at this level but on Saturday’s evidence he’s likely to play second fiddle to Russell for some time.
Ruaridh Jackson can’t be discounted and Tom Heathcote will hopefully be given a chance against Tonga.
2. Are Blair Cowan and Kieran Low good enough?
Blair Cowan’s performance won over a lot of critics on Saturday, however opinion at Scottish Rugby Blog Towers is split. The prevailing opinion is that he suits Vern Cotter’s game plan, however he is by no means the best fetcher eligible to play for Scotland let alone in the squad. The stats show that he never missed a tackle but didn’t win any turnovers (although this writer thought he’d nicked at least one). He also seemed to get knocked backwards on occasion with ball in hand.
The consensus here is that Cowan is good enough although he is still at risk of Dan Parks levels of derision from fans and has much to do to win hearts and minds.
Although Kieran Low didn’t play, the performance on Saturday and the form of others in the squad make it difficult to see where he fits in. He is younger than Cowan so he may yet prove himself. He may make an appearance against Tonga should Cotter want to give the wider squad a chance to put pressure on the current starting XV.
3. Why is there only one openside in the squad?
Blair Cowan is not Scotland’s best openside. That is unarguable. He may not even be Scotland’s best back row forward. However his work at the base of an effective maul and positioning at the line out was faultless. Then again he made the fewest tackles of any forward on Saturday but Big Vern appears to have a different view on how he wants his backrow forwards to play and we saw the Gray brothers pop up again and again in midfield to choke the Argentinean attack.
The view here at Scottish Rugby Blog Towers is that Scotland need and out and out openside. Richie McCaw starts for the All Blacks on Saturday and it will be interesting to see how, and if, Scotland can compete at the breakdown against a man who regards the rule book as an occupational hazard.
4. What does Scotland’s best front row look like and is it good enough?
Ross Ford had one of his best games in a Scotland shirt for years earning the right to be called by his full title, Former British and Irish Lion Ross Ford. Ford was a nuisance at the breakdown, reminding many that he started out life as back row with the Border Reivers. His line out throwing was good and he made good yards with ball in hand. He has started to hook although it was hard to see any evidence of this against Argentina. The Pumas weren’t competing in the tunnel preferring to try and shove Scotland off the ball so it’ll be interesting to see how Ford manages should the All Blacks attempt to strike the ball against the head.
Overall the scrum was a mixed bag on Saturday although Ali Dickinson certainly put down a marker with his work in the loose. Both sides were given several warnings by an increasingly frustrated Wayne Barnes although no one was given their marching orders for infringements in the front row. Euan Murray is still good enough but Scotland’s scrum is by no means stable or reliable and the replacements fared no better and gave away a penalty try. Aside from Ross Ford’s resurgence it’s hard to see that we’re any closer to answering the question.
5. Can Scotland win the Grand Slam and World Cup in the same year?
With Samoa in revolt and South Africa being taken apart by Ireland Scotland can start to dream of making progress from the group stages in next year’s World Cup. After that Scotland would play either Wales, Australia or England and progress beyond the semi-finals becomes more unrealistic. However a lot of water will have passed under the bridge by then and in a World Cup anything can happen. This weekend will give a real flavour of Scotland’s potential, however they are up against a weakened All Blacks so even a historic victory won’t really give us an answer.
If Scotland can replicate Saturday’s performance consistently during next year’s 6 Nations then Scotland are likely to push opposition teams all the way. The Grand Slam is a big ask but if Big Vern is the real deal Scotland might improve on 2013’s finish. If that happens and results elsewhere go Scotland’s way then the Championship might be a possibility.