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The 2015 Six Nations Epic Roundtable Pt 1

Scotland Huddle - pic © Al Ross
Scotland Huddle - pic © Al Ross

In a secret cavern somewhere in the central Scotland of the mind, the Scottish Rugby Blog team sat down to ponder the frustrating experience that was Scotland’s Six Nations 2015.

1. Well, that was a depressing 6 Nations. Just how shallow is Scotland’s talent pool?

Andy McLellan: It’s about as shallow as Kim Kardashian. This 6 Nations showed just how acutely lacking we actually are in most areas but especially second row, wing and centre. Sean Lamont has been covering both of the latter for the last few years and whilst a great servant, he’s possibly/probably past it now.

Brodie Smithers: We’re one more injury away from having Richie Vernon as our starting centre.

Gav Harper: Remember we’ve got Peter Horne….

AM: And Max Evans.

GH: Someone give Nick De Luca a phone.

RB: I don’t actually have a problem with Vernon as a centre, after a couple of runs at 12 he’s starting to look really at home there. His passing isn’t noticeably worse than Lamont’s.

AM: If you’re being really harsh you could probably sum up the lack of depth in two words – Dougie Fife.

RB: He was cruelly exposed against Ireland.

AM: Slim pickings in the backs though. I still don’t understand why Lee Jones doesn’t get a look in. He lacks versatility to cover other positions but his stepping ability is just what we could do with when the game starts breaking up. I think a far better option than Fife.

Ruairidh Campbell: That’s why I’m hoping the departures of Maitland and DTH from Glasgow will give Jones the chance he deserves – he certainly does have potential. In the long run, the impressive third place by the U20s in the junior 6 Nations shows that there is young talent progressing through the new system, if they can successfully make the step up to pro level then it looks like we could be in a good position in a couple of years.

RB: Can we wait that long?

AM: I shudder to think what would happen if Jonny Gray and/or Blair Cowan got injured (Hogg too for that matter). Front row has a few more options emerging – see Glasgow’s young props – but whether they’re up to international scratch will only tell in time. Leinster had Cian-bloody-Healy on the bench for crying out loud.

Cameron Black: We’re still really light in the prop department. This has been a problem for ages (remember Ed Kalman being called up?) but no one seems to have addressed it as it’s probably the most technically difficult position to learn.

RB: Props don’t grow on trees sadly.

CB: Grant Shiells is back at Edinburgh presumably to get him some game time but that’s not happened yet, which is a shame as he’s decent player. I think if you take account of players who’ve been “retired” against their wishes then rest of forwards aren’t too bad but only if Vern is still willing to give the likes of Al Kellock a call.

AM: We were unlucky with injuries this year, but most teams are. We simply cannot compare our situation with most other countries. Remove Dunbar and Maitland and suddenly the shiny back division looks very dodgy. I’m not convinced by the Scott/Bennett axis (although fans of both players) and Russell missing for Italy was huge, although Horne was solid. Weir/Jackson are still to come back…but again, are they up to it?

This is the only time I’ll defend SJ, but to give him his due he capped 16/17 players (the Berti Vogts method some way say) so there’s obviously been a recognition than we’re thin on the ground and need more blooded players.

2. So, Vern Cotter – is he really that good?

BS: Yes, he’s brought simplicity, structure and influence. Without that we would be a shambles.

Christie S Lester: I think Vern has a good record, but at the same time he has been working with teams that have depth and teams that have been able to attract in big names. Coaching an international side is very different to a league side….If Scotland were to remove Cotter after not even a year in charge, do we run the risk of following football in expecting an instant change in fortunes with a different man in charge…results take time to build.

AM: Yes. The players seem to enjoy working with him but also respect him and have made positive noises regarding the training methods and systems he wants them to play. He can only work with the small group of players he has, 1 or 2 injures and we’re struggling big time but he can’t exactly be responsible for that.

If we’re still asking the same question in 12 months, then there’s the answer but what’s the alternative? He came with a respected reputation, and judging by the French rumour that’s still intact. Plus, you don’t steer Clermont to the heights he did and not have some sort of coaching ability.

Still, black marks for Barclay/Brown/Kellock. Tom English basically said Vern’s not the most communicative of people when interviewing him, not strictly a bad thing but have heard a few people say he comes across as aloof or cold.

RB: The Anti-Scott Johnson. His press-conferences certainly aren’t as entertaining.

Barry John: Well the Anti-Scott gets a big thumbs up from me! But to the question at hand and in view of the previous comments (all of which I agree with) there’s a can of worms waiting to be opened here and that’s the comparison of Vern to Joe Schmidt.

As mentioned Vern’s previous stands him in good stead but in another country with another set of players. How much can our players buy into if they’ve limited/no exposure to it until he turns up? At least with Joe, the Leinster boys bought into it, probably passed on snippets of it at Ireland training camps to the rest of them even before Schmidt took over.

RC: It takes time for a team to adapt to a new playing style, especially if it is as young a squad as we currently have. I would have preferred to have seen Brown and Barclay still in the squad (Kellock now slipping down the pecking order with retirement) if anything just for them to provide experience, especially come the World Cup. However, the fact that he is giving these young players experience now shows that he obviously has some sort of long term plan for Scotland (look at Lancaster with England) so although the results may not be what we want them to be right now, we have to consider the future and the (possible) success we could eventually see…

Jamie Lyall: In a word, yes. Cotter is highly respected within the global game, and the players, from what I can gather, are enjoying working under him. His record speaks for itself, however, I would highlight two points:

  1. He does not have the quality player pool, or budget he enjoyed at Clermont or the Crusaders, hence his acknowledgement, ‘we are where we are and who we are’. There exists the skeleton of what may become a very tasty side, but it is flimsy, and missing a few important bones, so to speak. I think we’ve seen enough to agree, to an extent, with oft-tiresome talk of positives and progress.
  1. If you were to highlight a deficiency of Cotter’s Clermont teams, you would pinpoint their failings in the latter stages of the Top 14 and in Europe, often after a stellar regular season, and when favourites to claim silverware. Clearly, these are games of tremendous intensity, dependent upon many factors, but the record does suggest some form of mental frailty was at work.

CB: My only gripe with Cotter so far is that he’s been a bit tactically naive in not having enough experience on the bench to see out games. It’s not a mistake he seems to have learned from which is a worry.

I’m all for playing “the Scotland way” but we need to play a little bit smarter on occasion. I’m thinking of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle. Played some lovely football and scored some spectacular goals but conceded a heck of a lot as well. Scotland’s best 6 Nations in recent memory was 2013, when we spend large parts of games soaking up pressure before hitting on the counter. It’s something that’s worked for the ABs for years.

RB: It could work for the counter attackers we have like Hogg and Bennett.

AM: I think the defence has definitely slipped, take away the last day of the 6 Nations and most games were relatively tight but our lack of defensive nous has been apparent. I think Jonny Gray’s tackle count and Cowan’s turnover stats mask the fact that defensively we lacked a bit of cohesion, imo. Aside from well documented captaincy/leadership issues, Cotter doesn’t have an onfield general who’s totally in tune with his desired game plan (i.e Schmidt/Sexton, Gatland/Webb/Bigger and especially S Edwards/Warburton). He had Parra at CA.

Plus, whilst the Argentina game (now Cotter’s bench mark) was a cracking game and a spectacle, we still conceded 30 odd points.

I agree with Cameron, it does feel he’s been a bit naive at times but I’m also not sure how much he can impact these collective meltdowns several of the players seem to have at one time.

CB: I think you counteract it by throwing on experienced players on to the pitch in the final 20 mins to see out the game, rather than newbies.

AM: Fair point. Shame Kelly Brown was having a kick about with some of the Arsenal players that weekend.

BJ: I suppose what I’m saying: is the system is broken and if so so why does the buck stop with the head coach?

I mean I reckon Toony was given a Scotland job too soon. Now he’s laid the foundations at Glasgow there’s a good chance he may find himself as Vern’s heir apparent.

So in summing up: let’s see where we are this time next year.

Al Kerr: It’s safe to say that he’s not got to where he is by being a total diddy. His work with Clermont can’t be dismissed and if rumours of the French being interested in replacing Saint Andre are even half true then he still has some credit in the game.

He has made mistakes since coming in – primarily he needs to get the right people working with him. This is even more critical considering the playing pool he has – we must make the most of the resources available. Looking at the 6 Nations as it progressed it seems that the coaching in units does not sit together. The defensive pattern doesn’t match the attacking platform, and the overall ethos doesn’t bind these together.

He needs his own management team around him so it’s a holistic package, it’s too piecemeal at present.

4 Responses

  1. Really intereresting article and comments about VC. I think is is probably the best coach that we could hope for at present. With the exception of SJ, we have had some good coaches in the past but they are not majicians and neither is CVC. With such a small pool of players to pick from, most of which would not get into teams from England, Ireland, wales or France, he has tried his best. My only criticism is that he tends to persist with players like Laidlaw who are clearly not up to the job. I think it would be good for these guys to be driopped every so often just to keep them on their toes.

    Motivation is a factor and, against Italy and Ireland in particular I got the feeling that our side just gave up. The same players play really well for Edinburgh and Glasgow but put some of them in a dark blue jersey and they dont care. VC really needs to work on that. There are too many players that lack motivation and these guys need to be weeded out. I also feel that he should give some of the younger players a chance as they are more likely to be motivated to play for their country and, while they may lack acertain skills, they are more likely to be fit. The lack of fitness proved problematic in the 6 nations as we tended to be flagging after 40 mins.
    The forwards, or lack of good forwards, have been a problem for as long as I can remember. How do we solve this- I do not know but I do think the selectors need to think long and hard about who is chosen, particularly in the positions of prop and second row. We need more of a Martin Johnson and less of a Jim Hamilton or Geoff Cross. Our forwards dont have the strenghth to defend against roling mauls and the other teams know it. We were a far better team than Italy in the 6 nations but we lost the game because they played on our weaknesses- lack of strenghth in the forwards, inability to defend against a rolling maul, general lack of fitness through the entire team etc.

  2. Sean Maitland out for season. Not much of a swansong for the poor lad. Aiming to be back for the world cup. He’s going to be seriously undercooked. Shoulder and Knee injuries the bane of Scottish rugby at the moment!

    1. Starting backline at this rate will be seriously lacking. Matt Scott lacks the defensive and offensive brain for a 12, limiting what Bennett can do. I hope Maitland regains fitness and Visser gets looking lively soon, otherwise we may be faced with another Dougie Fife stint on the wing. I hope Cotter comes to his senses and drops Laidlaw. I was also thinking, presumably Hugh Blake won’t retain his squad place for the World Cup. Perhaps a recall for Brown or Barclay? Or even a call up for Roddy Grant?

  3. Thanks for your well considered points. My view is that the player pool is frighteningly shallow. Throwing on 2 rookie new caps to try and close out the Italy match was naive in the extreme. Scott Johnston may have blooded a lot of new caps but what was missing was any sense of that the process was to do with fitting new international players into an existing team to enhance the team’s capabilities. By default there seems to be a consensus as to what our strongest back division looks like but one injury or suspension significantly diminishes the unit. We lack core forwards and the project players arriving in the team will be inexperienced. There is a significant step up from Pro 12 to international rugby and some of those promoted haven’t made it. On the question of Cotter the jury has to be still out. Promising results in the autumn and inheriting a pool of some promising individuals one of his main failings has to be in not selecting leaders on the park to give strong direction to what is an inexperienced team. Post world cup is the time to make a judgement but indications seem to be he won’t be sticking around too long.

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