That defeat to Wales was massively dispiriting in the face of the high hopes we had for Scotland this year, after a best ever year last year. We judged them according to those hopes rather than perhaps the rest of the rugby world’s reality.
Some felt John’s marks were harsh, but the 5th side in the world came within two minutes of being nilled with a try bonus by the 7th side in a competitive test match. Losses are of course part of sport but that’s unacceptable for two teams so close together in the rankings. Our player ratings are of course subjective, but also scored on output rather than input. We’re not saying the players weren’t trying, but that some of them may have appeared that way to those of us still watching and not sobbing behind the couch.
I feel slightly guilty for hoping for so much from the players, but they were undoubtedly also confident this was the game that confounds history or statistics – both of which predicted Welsh wins.
Did we, and do we, expect too much? Yes perhaps, but the players have given us the belief by their performances. This was supposed to be The One, but maybe last year was just a succession of grubby one night stands. Maybe we dream too far.
Should we now temper our expectations? I’m afraid, we should. And quickly. Home wins against either or both France or England would send us off to Dublin with ridiculously high hopes again that you suspect would be dashed by a steely Ireland side. It doesn’t mean it is not a possibility, so let’s focus on the next game but try and keep things in perspective.
With France coming to town on Sunday, there is an extra day to prepare and in recent years Scotland are a different beast at home, as the tweet below illustrates.
For example see here in improvement in Murrayfield results pic.twitter.com/bFjOYha2E2
— Rugby4Cast (@Rugby4Cast) February 5, 2018
So there are two or three issues here.
- Scotland need to play better away from home. Including and excluding Rome, their record is poor. We can talk about this later in the tournament, when they go on the road after two home games against France and England.
- Scotland need to start tournaments better. Last year they started brilliantly with largely the same group of players though, but it was at home. So is that actually less of a problem than an extension of point #1?
- On pitch adaptability. When it’s not working, Scotland define madness by trying the same thing and expecting success. This week, Dan McFarland has been in the papers talking up their game plan and arguing that it is execution not approach that was at fault. That argument carries weight for about half an hour of a game; a team wants to play in a style that suits their strengths. But when it is point blank not working, surely something is needed as a fallback? Even this: if in doubt, maul it out.
This is the biggest worry, as time and again more physical, decisive and well-coached teams have locked down both Scotland and Glasgow’s supposed all-court gameplan. A failure to find a way to put the team into the right positions to score follows thereafter. It is not like we haven’t talked about it before. We’ve been talking about it in the context of Glasgow since the Champions Cup started.
And France will definitely be physical.
The issue is not leadership specifically, but game-management. The problem is that the entire core of the gameplan Townsend seems to aspire to routes through the players at 9 and 10. In the face of huge defensive pressure – and not perhaps in the manner Scotland expected from Wales – Scotland were creating more breakdowns that Price had to get to. After an extended period crabbing sideways from ruck to ruck, he threw the first interception. In short, the plan needs Price sharp, and to be sharp he needs to be going forwards not breathing hard running sideways.
The failure of execution from the much-vaunted backline came from the service provided by the half-backs. Nor should we underestimate the new cogs in that backline in Harris and McGuigan both of whom stuttered badly when asked to step up a level. But the tiredness of Price and Russell feeling the need to pull magic rabbits out of every ball falls at the feet of the pack, who didn’t or couldn’t get them going forward. Jonny Gray had a rampaging break very early on that brought images of big Richie at his best to mind, but it wasn’t repeated. Once Wales got their confidence after a second easy try, Scotland were left trying to chip over the defence not go around (or through). Kicking away ball is at best a 50/50 proposition.
So with all that in mind, changes have been made for the visit of France.
Unbanned Simon Berghan comes in at tighthead relegating Jon Welsh to the bench, but the other front rowers are the same. McInally aside, a bit more work in the loose is needed from them.
In the second row, Gilchrist swaps in for Toolis who had an off day but will hopefully give a good account from the bench. Gilchrist will provide extra heft for sure.
In the back row, Cornell du Preez undid all the good work from the autumn it is no surprise to see Ryan Wilson – we badly missed his hunger, his dog – and Dave Denton comes on to the bench in a welcome return.
And so to the half backs, the party kids who had their least effective outing after a shell-shocked first quarter of an hour when most of the horror came directly from their actions. Greig Laidlaw had his last start for Scotland against France, and he picks up where he left off alongside Russell which means Ali Price drops to the bench.
Pete Horne fills in at 12 with no return for Alex Dunbar, while Huw Jones shuffles out to the more familiar 13 shirt. It leaves us looking dynamic in attack but perhaps light in defence. The midfield replacement is Chris Harris, which puts us an injury away from some very chewed fingernails – but I am sure the Newcastle centre will be eager to show he’s not as bad as previous outings have suggested.
Maitland, Seymour, Hogg is a predictable but exciting back three, and Blair Kinghorn is in line for a first cap from the bench which would be no less than form deserves.
The Toony Tombola has spoken.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Pete Horne, Sean Maitland, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw; Gordon Reid, Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, John Barclay (capt), Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson.
Replacements: Scott Lawson, Jamie Bhatti, Jon Welsh, Ben Toolis, David Denton, Ali Price, Chris Harris, Blair Kinghorn.
France: Palis, Teddy Thomas, Lamerat, Doumayhou, Vakatawa, Beauxis, Machenaud; Poirot, Guirado, Slimani, Iturria, Vahaamahina, Lauret, Camara, Tauleigne
Replacements: Pelissie, Ben Arous, Gomes Sa, Gabrillagues, Picamoles, Serin, Belleau, Fall.
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)
BT Murrayfield, Sunday 11th February, kick off 3pm.