Now the dust has settled and heads have cleared – at least mine has after a slightly over indulgent weekend – I want to take a slightly different, more optimistic approach to Saturday’s result.
Like everyone else, I ran the full gamut of emotions we’ve all became so familiar with over the years when that final whistle went– anger, frustration, confusion, despair et all. How could a team promise so much only a matter of months ago, but suddenly look like a bunch of strangers? How could the same set of players, give or take, put in such hearty, encouraging performances against France and Wales and suddenly be downed by a spirted, aggressive, cohesive but fairly limited Italy team. In all honesty, I’m still struggling to work out why…although there’s one or two noticeable points many fans have picked up on. The failure to repeatedly deal with the Azzurri’s rolling mauls, slow service to our dynamic backline and simple, basic errors (not finding touch and taking a kick off straight out) but most damningly, a distinct lack of leadership.
I’d like to leave the technical aspects to one side for a moment and focus on the last point – leadership. Have a look at the starting line up from Saturday and you’ll see we fielded only 3 players with over 50 caps (Lamont with 92, Ford with 82 and Murray with 63) behind them came Dickinson with 41 and Laidlaw and Beattie with a relatively paltry 36 apiece. Then you’re on to Stuart Hogg, somebody who in many people’s minds has come to symbolise the new, dynamic, attacking backline we possess with 29 caps. Now put it another way, from the backline alone, Sean Lamont possess 10 caps fewer that the rest combined. From the forwards, the starting front row held more than double the amount of caps (186) the rest of the pack had (75). To summarise the substitute’s bench briefly, the replacement front row had a combined 61 caps between them, with 2 debutants coming on in the back 5.
Finally, before I lose you under a barrage of numbers think of these names – Parisse, O’Connell, Dusautoir, Warbuton and Robshaw. Like them, or loathe them, it’s clear to see that they’re simply put, leaders of men and rallying points for their teams. Disagree? 111, 99, 73, 52 and 36 is their respective cap total (before the latest round of 6 Nations fixtures). Robshaw, with 36 caps has captained his side on 33 occasions, Warbuton, on almost 40. Both made high profile mistakes early on in their tenures, but were able to learn from these and move on. Also, only Dusautoir and Warbuton haven’t played every minute of every match this tournament, due to injury induced substitutions. The Welsh, English and Irish captains also have added British and Irish Lions experience.
Our captain, by comparison? 36 caps also, and was only made captain during last year’s 6 Nations due to Scott Johnson’s dropping of the regular captain, Kelly Brown mid-way through the tournament. Laidlaw has also yet to complete a full 80 minutes in this year’s competition and many would argue, myself included, has suffered a significant drop in form.
We can also easily trot out a list of experienced, developed leaders in each team. Alun Wyn-Jones, Pascal Pape, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Gethin Jenkins, Morgan Parra, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Luke McLean, James Haskell, Nick Easter to simply name a few. All experienced, all leaders, all communicators.
Now you may have read that, and asked “so what”? The point I’m trying to make is simply this –when the chips are down, you’re up against it and facing relentless aggression from the totemic monolith of Sergio Parisse, a man who has at times, has simply dragged Italian rugby kicking and screaming through past 6 Nations campaigns, you’re being faced with a force of nature. Our relatively young, callow and inexperienced team wilted under such aggression. Is that a failure? Most certainly. Are they first group of players to have done so? Most certainly not. But with a lack of on field leadership, particularly when our anointed regular captain is off the field, is it not to be expected that some of these guys may be overwhelmed? Sure, you could argue somebody of the experience of Sean Lamont should stand up and make himself heard, but he’s never been that character. George North, a man similar in size and stature won his 50th cap by the time he was 22 and routinely leads by sheer example more than anything.
Who is our rallying point? Who is the man in our team whose team mates can look into his eyes and say “I’m following you”.
When we’re expecting the 10 cap Johnny Gray, many observer’s tip for future captaincy duties, to display leadership qualities whilst still finding his feet at international level, calling line outs and having to partner,first, the 10 cap Tim Swinson then the debutant Ben Toolis – it shows distinctly and acutely, the sheer lack of experience our team possesses.
But…to bring it back to now. Where do we go from here has been the question I, and many others have asked, and the answer is simple. Forward. I’m of the opinion that Saturday’s defeat could, and perhaps should, prove more beneficial to Vern Cotter and his players than any encouraging performances against Wales, France or New Zealand for the simple reason of this – experience.
I’ve claimed before that this team is at a juncture. Many of the “old guard”, those who experienced an Indian summer (or autumn, to be more precise) will bear the brunt of Saturday’s loss. Vern Cotter will surely have learnt who can be counted on when the going gets tough, and who can’t be. He will surely have learned more in those 80 minutes of brutal arm wrestling who can perform, control and sustain performance under pressure than 160 minutes against the Welsh and French when we threw the ball about in a way we haven’t seen for years but, ultimately, lost.
Is bringing back in one or two gnarled and grizzled old heads such as Kelly Brown, John Barclay or Al Kellock to provide a spot of leadership and experience the answer? Well, in my opinion anyway, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. A friend of mine recently worked with Al Kellock and made it clear, when he walked into a room and talked, you listened.
Finally, players, and teams, are born when under fire. No great team has come together and not had set backs along the way. Sir Clive Woodward frequently talks about lost matches providing him more insight into player’s mind-sets than any victory did. His team’s failures lead to incredible victories, in his words. Stuart Lancaster talked frequently about the humiliation his team suffered in 2014 in Wales and how he was able to harness that pain before this year’s reverse fixture. Joe Schmidt highlighted Ireland’s loss to England last year as a turning point for this team and now they’re sitting 3rd in the World rankings and playing the sort of rugby that takes you deep in to a world cup. And to go off rugby, the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, has cited the pain defeat caused his team as the sole motivation behind going a season unbeaten.
This new dawn wasn’t forged in defeat to Wales and France and it certainly won’t be broken in defeat to Italy. Experience comes from winning, and whisper it here, losing.
Vern Cotter, the man who was billed as our saviour, deserves the time to get this right and if suffering defeats arms him and his team with the required knowledge…well then I’m prepared to suffer with them.