Prior to the Autumn Tests we posed five questions that we thought would be answered by Scotland’s games against Argentina, New Zealand and Tonga. Scotland have undoubtedly enjoyed a successful autumn but for every commentator that hails their progress another pops up to urge caution and the possibility of yet another false dawn.
We’ll be looking back at the Autumn Tests in more detail in the next week or so but in the meantime we’re going to look back and see whether or not our questions have been answered.
1. Russell? Heathcote? Weir?
Russell looks like the real deal. There are still rough edges that need smoothing off such as charged down clearance kicks but Russell plays with the confidence and swagger of a drunken matador. His game management is superb leaving opposition teams guessing which direction he was going to send the ball and then there’s THAT dance. His relationship with Laidlaw also looks solid despite the limited game time they’ve had together.
Weir has been solid from the bench aside from a moment of madness at the close of the Argentina game. Although some have attributed that to Laidlaw’s call to take a tap penalty rather than clearing the lines. Weir is a decent enough option but he lacks Russell’s game management skills and quick thinking which makes it easier for the opposition to read what’s going to happen. That doesn’t fit with Big Vern’s organised chaos tactics.
Heathcote didn’t feature which is a shame as he deserved a run from the bench. There is nothing to suggest that he’s a better option than Russell based on his performances for Edinburgh so far this season. However he should have been given the chance to show that he might offer something different to Weir’s skillset.
2. Are Blair Cowan and Kieran Low good enough?
Blair Cowan is good enough and it’s likely to take an injury to shift him from Scotland’s openside berth. Cowan has grown with every match and capped it off with a man of the match performance against Tonga. This writer still has some concerns about Cowan’s body position when tackled with the ball in hand which saw him driven backwards on occasion. However he has demonstrated an ability to learn quickly from his mistakes so hopefully this is something he will be working on between now and the Six Nations.
Kieran Low only made a short appearance at the end of the Tonga game and aside from taking part in one scrum didn’t really have an opportunity to do much else. Clearly marked as one for the future but he needs to start playing more regularly for London Irish or seek a move if he is to start pushing the likes of Hamilton and Swinson for a place on the bench.
3. Why is there only one openside in the squad?
The reason Vern Cotter only has one openside in the squad appears to hark back to this idea of organised chaos. Scotland have begun to vary their tackling throughout the game. In the past Scotland would look to get opposition players on the deck by taking their legs in order to try and nick the ball in the ruck. That still happens but now Scotland are more focussed on preventing the opposition from offloading in the tackle by hitting players above the waist and we also saw some very effective choke tackles from the Gray brothers. The Scotland coaches also appear to have been working on body positions at the ruck with the whole squad. In short the whole team is playing as openside in defence. Whilst that may keep the opposition guessing it might also be the reason why Scotland are giving away too many penalties at the breakdown in attack and defence. It’s one thing to have one Richie McCaw figure trying to evade the attention of the referee and quite another to have a whole team of fifteen players playing fast and loose with the rules.
Overall Scotland’s new varied approach to the tackle battle makes it difficult for opposition teams to attack. Before they could run through the phases of ruck, pass, ruck, pass with the hope of eventually finding a chink in the defence. Now players are left wondering how they are going to be hit making it harder for the attacking side to keep any sort of rhythm and shape.
4. What does Scotland’s best front row look like and is it good enough?
Unfortunately we haven’t really been able to answer this question.
Ross Ford has performed so well during the Autumn Tests that it’s almost hard to remember what we were all complaining about. Ford seems to be thriving under Cotter and long may that continue. His work in the loose and line out throwing should see him start as first choice hooker but there are still concerns in the scrum.
Ford can hook. We’ve seen him hook. The problem is that Scotland have been using him as a third prop for so long that frailties either side of him have never been properly addressed. If Ford tries to hook the Scottish scrum goes backwards. The blame then shifts to those outside him.
Ali Dickinson had a good series although Ryan Grant’s return from injury will put some pressure on him and it’s not hard to imagine that Grant might regain the shirt for the start of the 6 Nations. Scotland’s problem remains at tighthead with neither Euan Murray or Geoff Cross quite nailing the shirt (which is a shame because I think we can all agree that we’d like to see a lot more of Girth’s beard). Cross perhaps had the better time of it in the scrum against Tonga but allowances have to be made for the quality of the opposition and the stability offered by the artificial playing surface.
Zander Ferguson waits in the wings but is nowhere near ready for international rugby. Vern Cotter may need to have Scottish scouts scouring the Southern Hemisphere for a 20 stone tighthead with a Scottish granny before the World Cup.
5. Can Scotland win the Grand Slam and World Cup in the same year?
Scotland can be more confident of progressing beyond the group stages in what remains a difficult group. Japan, the USA and Samoa have all dropped off the pace after showing significant improvements but 12 months is a long time in international sport. None of them should be treated lightly by Scotland regardless of their position in the World Rankings next autumn.
Further progress seems unlikely although Scotland have beaten Australia in recent memory. However games at Twickenham or the Millennium Stadium against England or Wales are a distinct possibility. Scotland will need to improve at a much faster rate if they are to make the semi finals let alone win the tournament.
This year’s 6 Nations is another matter. Wales, France, England and Italy are not without their own internal struggles and Scotland play a resurgent Ireland at Murrayfield. Somehow it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to begin to start hoping that we can dream of hoping that we might dream of hoping that we might just not do too badly this year.
The relationship between Scotland and their fans is not dissimilar to a real relationship where one partner keeps spending the housekeeping online gambling. They promise they won’t do it again but then we’ve been here before. We’ve had our hearts broken before. Perhaps after the Autumn Tests we’re ready to let Scotland back in. But not into our beds. They can sleep on the sofa for now. Maybe, after the 6 Nations, if they’ve managed not to p*** the housekeeping away playing online poker, we might think about asking them up the stairs.