There’s a lot of chat about injuries going around.
England, are we are told, in somewhat of a crisis. Eddie Jones thinks they’re being written off – he loves to stoke a fire that one – and has decided Ireland are favourites. At the recent 6 Nations launch he also had some time for a few trademark swipes at Scotland, quoted in the nameless paper:
“How excited do people get when the ball goes from side to side with Scotland?
Murrayfield grows an extra 10,000 people but, again, to play that under the pressure of expectation is going to be a different question to put to the team. They’ve got a great young coach, Gregor (Townsend), and he’s got them playing well.
But it’s different when you go in as underdogs from when you’re expected to win and play with that panache.”
Someone should perhaps point out to him that most of us north of the border expected to win the last match Scotland played, against his old team the Wallabies, be it 14 or 15 men on the pitch. And we all know how that turned out. He could be referring instead to last year’s Fiji or Samoan tests, where Scotland failed to handle being favourites very well.
I’m not sure if the side-to-side thing is a jibe at the aimless, crabbing play that Scotland were prone to a few years back, but he is at least right that now Scotland fans are excited about our team.
And we’re right to be.
We have our best back division in two decades – possibly more – and even a few players who would actually make the grade if they were playing for any other nation – which is not often a test our guys have passed. Aside from worries over Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor, the backs are all settled, fit and raring to go. There’s a feeling, a buzz. Scoring tries is a when, not if concept now and that puts Scotland in with a chance in any game they are focused on, against any team, as we saw against New Zealand. Even better, the myth we want the roof open and the rain on has long since been put to bed.
A comment that has appeared often on these pages (and elsewhere) as Scotland have shown glimmers of promise, the odd decent performance or even a win in recent years is this: when this Scotland team finally clicks, one day someone will be on the end of a hammering.
You could argue that was the Wallabies game and we can go back to sliding down to the Wooden Spoon basement again to let Ireland and England battle it out, but look at the players available to Townsend now who weren’t there in the autumn. Yes, we have worries in the front row and Richie Gray isn’t quite fit yet, but in every area aside from prop and replacement hooker this is surely a stronger squad than any selected last year. Injuries in the modern game could mean we never see the perfect blend of all our available players but this team has not yet peaked.
Some would also argue Scotland haven’t faced a stern test yet or that they wilted when they did (Paris and Twickenham last year). Everyone forgets that Scotland beat Ireland and Wales last year, games they were not expected to win even at home and fought off second half comebacks by both teams. They lost in France when Laidlaw and Strauss went off injured and there was not the depth to replace them. Would you worry about Ali Price replacing Laidlaw now?
Twickenham was the same thing, magnified. Brown’s card was brainless, but no team could have coped with the injuries that forced the players to play for longer, out of position. It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.
Our new, gallus generation are not afraid. They are focused on the buzz of winning, not because they want to know what it feels like for the first time but because they want to feel it again. Winning a tournament is different to winning one-off games, and this is the next step they will need to take. But our build up will not be focused on what we cannot do because of injury. Scotland as a team are in a good place.
In the 6 Nations, competition is fierce and unforgiving. Scotland will at the least need to beat Wales away, France at home and Italy away to be in with a shout; none of those is a foregone conclusion. They will want to exorcise the ghost of the Calcutta Cup while they are at it. There’s plenty of work ahead before we even think about being in the mix on the final weekend and that starts with a performance in Cardiff.
Wales are so short of fit players they could be in danger of recalling Gavin Henson. Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb are the latest names they may have to do without, but overconfidence would be rash. Their own golden generation may be on the wane, but so is the love affair with Warrenball. As Gatland turns to fresher faces to inspire in the same way that the Scarlets do, you could see a resurgent Wales next week, never mind in a year or two. He might have to remove Rob Howley as a roadblock though.
Underestimating any side in the 6 Nations is a bad idea.
That includes Scotland.