That was disappointing, wasn’t it?
Another Rugby World Cup dream in tatters.
Now that the dust has settled and the Scotland players are back at home (or still on holiday), although the legal rumblings may continue it’s time for the rest of us to take stock.
The 2020 Six Nations is just over three months away. From a side that now repeatedly feels like it is repeating mistakes of the past, have we, in fact, learned anything?
No one in the current coaching set up knows how to send this group of players out, yet
We’ve had one pretty good second half (v Japan, didn’t win) and one blindingly good one (v England, didn’t win) but, by and large, this has been a massively disappointing year for the Scotland rugby team. The first warm-up against France, the Ireland pool game and the first half-hour against England are serious black marks on the character of the current squad as bad as any from the dismal early years of this site.
Should heads roll? Gregor Townsend has only been in the post for two years and forwards coach Danny Wilson around a year which may not be enough to make a serious impact in his case. Things have gone backwards in the forwards since Dan McFarland was poached by Ulster. Wilson may come good but there is a persistent worry that the coaching setup comprises nice guys who are bright, potentially innovative rugby thinkers but lacking a harder edge for the basic confrontational side of rugby.
We don’t really know what Vern Cotter is like behind closed doors (he came across as quiet and decent in press conferences but then murdered the odd rabbit) but despite a worse record than Townsend, the persisting impression remains the taciturn Kiwi was hard – he got them fired up, and Toony and his lot don’t. Hence the constant calls for a grumpy ex-Rugby League bugger to get involved – though you’ll never pin Shaun Edwards down long enough for him to sign a contract.
The levels of execution have also dropped. When Cotter and Jason O’Halloran were in the hot seat, yes the results weren’t much better overall but you didn’t panic every time Scotland got the ball. Attacking play felt natural and confident, not rudderless. When the team got the ball in space you’d think “it’s on”, and quite frequently it was, even on days when Finn or Hoggy weren’t playing.
Some of that verve continued into the early Townsend years (think the near miss against New Zealand or demolition of Australia) but it seems to have been replaced this year by mistimed or forced passes and endless knock-ons. We still see verve, but more commonly against underperforming or lower ranked teams. Has our current approach been figured out?
Skills coach Mike Blair may be under a microscope but the shoogliest peg looks like it belongs to Defence Coach Matt Taylor – rumoured to be wanted by former Director of Rugby Scott Johnson to be part of the post-Cheika Australia set up he is overseeing, a setup that may also claim Warriors coach Dave Rennie. O’Halloran was also recently coy about his long term ambitions here, with a young family back home in New Zealand perhaps pulling him away from a move up the rungs of the Glasgow or Scotland setups – he may even follow Rennie wherever he goes.
If we need freshness for freshness sake then that could be the most face-saving option. The possibility of another torrid Six Nations cannot be glossed over especially with Ireland (who had a poor World Cup and looked as bad against New Zealand as we did against Ireland), and World Cup finalists England first up.
Yes, you can build for the future. But to squander the talent we have now would be callous towards fans, and a generation of players hitting their peak years, in the extreme. Our coaching setup needs to serve the talent when we get it, not tick along in spite of it.
We don’t play the Fastest Brand of Rugby in the World™
Right now, Japan do. If that wasn’t patently obvious before we exited the World Cup, it is now.
Back when no-one was really doing it outside Super Rugby, a fast offloading game executed with high precision seemed innovative and fresh, and an alternative to Rugby league defences – despite it harking back to classic rugby of the past in its simplicity, and being remarkably similar to what the New Zealand teams have done for the last decade.
Now, were we to say anything of the sort was our intention, we’d just look like we were copying Japan. Under Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown they have almost perfected the system in the time it took us to conceive it and subsequently fail to master it.
Scotland do still look capable of this sort of attacking play in patches, but unlike Japan’s gameplan it is not allied to a furious refusal to let go of the ball. Our execution is riddled with knock-ons, players getting isolated in possession and scattergun kicking which takes the foot off the pedal all too easily.
With World Cup finalists England and South Africa proving that physicality and defence really are more important than attack in championship rugby, it seems difficult to show how such an approach could work today at the very top level, even 100% error-free.
Is it a plan that can work for us, or for anyone? Japan were throttled by Springbok power. Townsend seems to be retreating a little towards a gameplan that features more tactical kicking, now a requirement to take the pressure off from the suffocating rush defences that always shut us down on the big occasions.
Finn needs some help
Scotland need to have threats across the backline, starting at 9 right the way through to 15 – a running threat from 9 would also give the standoff more time on the ball.
At the moment our attacking plans absolutely need to revolve around the swashbuckling instincts of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings at ten, but not to the exclusion of an attacking threat in the midfield, as seems to be the case currently.
Huw Jones, Mark Bennett and Rory Hutchinson all need to come into the conversation for the Six Nations to keep defences honest. Bennett and Hutchinson are probably the front runners at given their current club form but Jones has at least looked hungry when he is given a chance for Glasgow.
Duncan Taylor and Sam Johnson will hopefully be match fit by then too and if Matt Scott’s brilliant form continues, he may come back into things at 12, as his defence has massively improved under Calum Macrae; we could see a midfield pair starting against Ireland who didn’t even go to Japan.
Stuart Hogg may have been some way off his best but even the lowest-ranked defences found it easy to shut down the attacking moves outside of Russell as all the plays were going through either him or Hogg.
Actually, we still punch above our weight
Possibly by virtue of history rather than necessarily merit, Scotland still punches well above its weight in the world game.
Maybe not as powerful as New Zealand in terms of deciding contingency plans for World Cup games, but enough clout to veto World Cup hosts or half-baked Nations League plans. Is that too much clout?
If the world game is to be truly inclusive and grow, should the “first world” of rugby (the Six Nations) have so much power?
Off the field, Mark Dodson and the SRU are fast becoming the rugby “elite” who rail against rugby “slightly more elites” whilst swimming against the tide of popular opinion trying to protect the union’s and the team’s interests.
We’re like Frodo, if he decided the One Ring wasn’t all that bad really and could definitely be used to grow the game in the Shire. Then he takes it off and Eddie Jones has moved in next door and we’re locked out of a 17-test series between Mordor and Gondor.
In short, they’re rapidly undoing the work of a few years where we’d become many supporter’s second team due to the enterprising style of rugby played.
By and large the on-field performances keep us above water, which is not bad for a team with so few registered rugby players let alone a selection pool probably not far off 100 men in terms of the national team.
With a new system in place to collect registrations, the SRU recently announced a figure of 36,207 which is believed to be more accurate than recent amounts quoted.
It’s not a lot.
Jamie Ritchie has hit the ground running
I think I said this about John Barclay way back in 2007 (and that didn’t pan out) but Ritchie looks like he will be a mainstay of the team for years to come.
Give him the captaincy now and let him lead the team towards 2023.
Our leadership group will look quite bare shorn of Wilson, Laidlaw and Barclay – who may not retire just yet, but will not be at the next World Cup – so with only McIinally, Jonny Gray and Hogg likely to be still in the mix we need to lay the foundations now for the next batch.
Townsend being forced by injury and form to play Ritchie and Bradbury could be hugely helpful to the development of this squad – you wouldn’t want 2023 to be their first taste of a World Cup and now, luckily, it won’t be.
With Hamish Watson still out long term, Ritchie is one of the first names on the team sheet and should be given a chance to keep learning the details of rugby at this level.
We’ve learned we are not learning
Poor tactics, poor execution and repeated failure to learn lessons. Even the players are now openly talking about how they are talking about how hard it is to figure out why they play the way they do – occasionally brilliant; usually frustrating.
It’s compounded by that need for press coverage which means media-trained players being sent up for interview ahead of games. It’s standard stuff to talk yourselves up without saying anything too controversial, why wouldn’t you – as a professional sportsperson – display a basic level of self-confidence?
Then after a dispiriting loss you can’t come out and say the things you probably realistically feel. Unfortunately has the effect of making it seem like players don’t mean what they say, because they revert to the standard media-trained soundbites about learning lessons, taking stock and everything else that happens at the end of the day.
If you look at the World Cup as a whole, very few teams actually performed consistently at their own very highest level. England reached it once against New Zealand, Ireland once against us, South Africa once in the final although they managed their trajectory best. Japan had two great games while Wales might argue they never really peaked. Scotland’s own high water marks were against Samoa and Russia, teams they should be expecting to beat.
With the Six Nations up next, there are no teams we expect to beat so we’re once again back to finding confidence in a tough learning environment. You’d think it would have helped us, over the years…
All we’ve really learned is that we’re still not really learning, and something needs to change quickly…