Rory Lamont and Simon Webster have been added to the squad to travel to Dublin. We’ll have more on the team announcement tomorrow. Jason White is still not fully training, and John Barclay has a small injury too. Strokosch / Hogg / Brown back row anyone?
So, Chris Paterson just played over 50 minutes at stand-off for Gloucester. As I type this, he came off the pictch seemingly to be replaced by a streaker. Mossy missed two conversions (that with hindsight would have sealed victory), fluffed a couple of restarts – the commentators review said his performance was “mixed”. Not the ideal preparation for the man who we hope will fire our attacking ambitions against Ireland next weekend – he was given his chance, and didn’t shower himself in glory. What, Chris Paterson missed kicks? But then so did Phil Godman in Edinburgh’s narrow loss to Munster, and he wasn’t known for his kicking in the first place – though it seems vastly improved. Do we dare take the same risks at international level?
Mossy will probably get the nod, and it’s probably about time he was given a shot, even if it’s not clear that he is ready for all that the role of international 10 will demand of him. Godman may also not be ready. But can they really offer us less in attack than Parks? Southwell still offers a good tactical kicking option, with Paterson or Godman able to cover the fullback’s space when that’s going on. So at least one of them should be brought in, if you ask me. Meanwhile on the same Cherry and Whites team as CP, you have Alisdair Strokosch and Rory Lawson, Scotsmen in the form of their lives, who will probably not even get slots in the starting 22.
“Stroker” has the problem of playing in Jason White’s position. But White has looked off-colour thus far, and if the Scotland team were truly picked on form it would be hard to argue against giving the ex-Edinburgh man his chance at the 6 shirt. He offers power going forward, enthusiasm for the workload and crunching, crowd-pleasing tackles – sound familiar? Of the other possible occupants (if you were to bench the current captain), neither is a natural 6 – indeed Hogg seems to be coming on to a bit of form at 8, his preferred position, so I would argue he should stay there, and make it a coin-toss between Brown and Strokosch at 6.
Rory Lawson finds himself in another of Scotland’s few areas of genuine depth, scrum half. Al (and my dad) may disagree with me, but Mike Blair has done little wrong thus far in the tournament. Mind you, he hasn’t done anything truly brilliant either – on a par with his team mates. For me Blair still offers a better attacking threat than Cusiter with ball in hand, and the number of try saving tackles he has made for club and country proves him sure in defence too. Still if you wanted a cross between Cusiter and Blair – nuggety defence, a good break, barking at the forwards and swift distribution to boot, for me Lawson might be the go-to guy. (Might it may be time to retire the scrum-half as terrier metaphor? Bill McLaren, we salute you.)
So basically it seems to come down to the old question regarding selection – change for changes sake? Bring in the young guns all at once, or drip feed them into the team to build their experience but keep some steady heads? Which approach will keep the media, the bosses or the supporters yearning for a sense of direction at bay the longest? Does it mean we will have to wait for Nick De Luca to settle in (or be dropped) before Rennie, or Cairns, or Beattie or Evans get their turn in a Scotland shirt? Lievremont picked almost a whole team of tyros for France, and said “go out and play”. The guys I just mentioned, as well as Lawson or Strokosch, would certainly fit into an old Frank Hadden team, the ones that just went out and played, freeing the shackles of the overly prescriptive Williams era. You could argue that what you do is blood them all early on in an easy game, then drip feed the seasoned pros back into the team as the tournament goes on. It seems to be working for France, to get the results that every coach needs to ensure he has the time to oversee his own masterplan to fruition in time for the next World Cup or Six Nations, the building blocks of coaching careers. But for Scotland there are no longer any easy games in the Six Nations. And that’s the final question:
Does Frank Hadden have his own masterplan?
UPDATE: check out Gloucester Rugby for a report on the game.
Scotland’s 6 Nations campaign staggered further into the abyss on Saturday when Scotland crashed to a decent, but not outstanding, Welsh side. Scotland had arrived in the Welsh capital eager to make amends for last weeks horror show against the French but instead compounded the misery by turning in an abject display that was a throwback to the dark days of the Matt Williams era (shudder!). Scotland will undoubtedly point to Shane Williams second “try”as an important turning point in the match, but Scotland did not deserve anything from the game and the 30 – 15 final score was a fair reflection of the domination that the Welsh had all afternoon.
Keeping in line with Rory’s Episcopal writings Chris Paterson has risen from his resting place on the subs bench to take his place in the Scotland starting XV for the game against Wales. Paterson has come in at 15 and Kelly Brown (8) has come in to replace David Callum who has dropped out the squad entirely. Ally Hogg has been called into the subs bench and will no doubt be looking to make a big impact if (when?) he gets on the pitch. The rest of the first XV have remained unchanged and means that Dan Parks and Nick De Luca, neither of whom set the heather alight on Sunday, will face up to the Welsh.
Here is a look at the starting XV for the game down in Cardiff on Saturday (2pm kick-off):
1) Allan Jacobsen – Scotlands main attacking drive from the forwards against France. Having a good season for Edinburgh and encouraging to see that being carried into the international arena.
2) Ross Ford – Coped ok on Sunday but is he able to cope in the scrum with the strongest nations? Will be interesting to see how he holds up against the Welsh.
3) Euan Murray – Big, powerful but not a real threat at the lineout.
4) Nathan Hines – The aggressive drive for Scotland but never really fired against France. If he can up his game Scotland can prosper.
5) Jim Hamilton – Another big player and helped stabilise the Scottish scrum, very noticeable when he went off. Question marks over his effectiveness in the lineout (compared to say Scott Murray).
6) Jason White (C) – a big game for Jason. Was disappointing against the French and question mark remains over his ability to lead when the going gets tough. He needs to demonstrate his ability to put the big hits in and make the metres up otherwise his place is surely at risk.
7) John Barclay – one of the brighter spots on Sunday and will look to take the game to the Welsh. Expect him to be a big player on Saturday.
8 ) Kelly Brown – looked good when he came on and has been in fine form this season.
9) Mike Blair – Hmmmm, wasn’t amazing on Sunday and thought Cusiter may have got the nod. His form for his club has been good but he needs to move the ball quicker.
10) Dan Parks – Still a fan but this suddenly becomes a big game for Scotland’s #1 ass-patter. Another stinker will put him under huge pressure but if he can do the basics well and kick Scotland into good position he could become a very large thorn in Wales side. His passing needs to improve though.
11) Simon Webster – struggled in a Scotland shirt lately but in a thankless role of Scotland winger starved of service.
12) Andy Henderson – dodged a bullet, twice, when neither carded nor cited for his ‘head-butt’ on Traille. He will no doubt want to make a positive impression against Wales and will look to make some hard yards, which unlike head-butting, is something he does well.
13) Nick de Luca – had a shocking start to his international career but came onto a game as the match progressed. Glad he is back in the team and hopefully being in an atmosphere where the pressure will be off him he will have a chance to show just what he is capable off. By the end of this 6 Nations he may prove to be a permanent fixture at 13.
14) Nikki Walker – probably had his best game in a Scotland shirt in the France match. A couple of very good runs and looked a handful for the French. If he can take that form into the Wales game he has the potential to be explosive and surely the opportunity to get one over so many of his team mates will spur him on. Will be a valuable source of intel on the opposition.
15) Chris ‘The Prodigal Son’ Paterson – having been dropped Paterson will have it all to prove. As Rory mentioned in another section Paterson looked as sharp as he has in a awful long time and 15 may yet prove to be the best place for him as he will be able to run the ball and he can beat his men. Could this be the game that Paterson cements his status as a modern legend of the Scotland game? Bold prediction but I expect him to score a try and maintain his kicking prowess.
On paper it is another fairly strong Scotland squad and I don’t think they will be able to play as badly again as they did on Sunday. Wales had a superb result against England but it is important to remember that for 40 minutes of that match the Welsh were abysmal and to a certain degree the English shot themselves in the foot. In saying all that, the Welsh crowd will expect a win against Scotland and they will go in big favourites and rightfully so. It promises to be a fascinating battle with 2 very distinct styles of play coming up against each other. I imagine Scotland will try to keep it tight, utilise Parks kicking from hand and play for territory while the Welsh will play the usual high tempo game based on running and moving the ball out wide – just like France… A big area for Scotland will be the lineout, a notoriously weak area for the Welsh, where they failed to apply any real pressure against the French. The kicking of Dan Parks only becomes a weapon if the Scots can pressure the Welsh lineout and either force bad ball or, even better, a turnover. If Scotland dominate in the set pieces they will likely go on and win the game but if they struggle as in the second half against the French then Scotland could be in for a very long afternoon.
In my pre-tournament piece I predicted Scotland would win against France and lose to Wales. Obviously I got the France game horribly wrong but I suspect I may be closer to the mark against Wales. That’s not to say that I don’t think Scotland can win, they have a good chance of doing damage against the Welsh but Wales are on a high and will be out to impress against Scotland…
Actually, sod all that, I’m an optimist, Scotland to win by 10 points in a hugely inspiring and disciplined display of aggressive rugby!
God loves an optimist…
Over and out.
…to the Scotland team ahead of the game against Wales on Saturday? Al made a comment as we watched the game that God was not a Scotsman, due to the bad luck that compounded our errors into the troubling performance we saw last Sunday. Worryingly after Saturday’s matches, it appears he may be actually be a Welshman, or at least a close friend of St David… Religious ravings aside, is wholesale change to the team the answer to salvaging some sort of campaign? Although Parks upped his game considerably in the World Cup, I think it’s time to give Mossy or World Class Phil (kicked 5 out of 7 for the A team in their romp over Italy A) a run at 10. Paterson may not be getting the game time at Gloucester, but something down there must be working, as he’s looked sharper and faster than I’ve seen him in a while even in the limited outings he gets. Consider the solo try he scored in the mud for Gloucester – where has that zip been for Scotland? In his kicking boot perhaps…
Parks should not be dropped because he played poorly (we’d have to drop most of them then), but because he is not offering the options to the back division that they need to score tries. Nikki Walker played pretty well with what he got in his best performance yet, but with Scotland he is working in a one metre-wide channel along the touchline. Perhaps it’s an idea to rest Jason White too. Everyone raves about him as a captain, but his play seems to be suffering a bit. Callam was not terrible, but Hogg must be in the team, and not just because he spoke to Al and I when we were fairly drunk. Having said that, I would leave De Luca in the team and not “Tait” him – he will, I suspect, have learnt a lot from Sunday’s trial by fire. Most of them can only get better from here. With that in mind, here is the XV I would field next week:
Murray, Ford, Jacobsen, Hines, Macleod, Strokosch, Barclay, Hogg
Notes: You could bring back Scott Murray instead of Macleod, or Al Kellock. Chunk was our best attacking back on Sunday! If it was complete reshuffle time you could look at Ross Rennie, but I thought Barclay showed up well in defence. Or you could move Big Jason into the second row alongside Hines, which is crazy talk mid-tournament but in the abstract, not such a terrible idea.
Blair, Paterson, Webster, Henderson, De Luca, Walker, Southwell
Notes: an other alternative is 10. Godman, 11. Paterson with Webster on the Bench. If Webster can’t hold on to the ball, Thom Evan’s hour may be fast approaching.
Bench: Thomson, Kerr, Hamilton, White, Cusiter, Parks, AN Other (maybe Danielli or Evans but more likely to be Macrae)
And the captain? Blair or Hines, but assuming Frank was crazy/ballsy enough to pick this team he’d give the armband to Paterson. Blair would keep the pace up, Hines the attitude. Which would you prefer from your Scotland team?
Ouch! Scotland games must come with a health warning in future as Sunday’s debacle against the French has left a very severely bruised ego. I was confident going into the game that Scotland would have too much for the French and come out better in this Auld Alliance battle. Shows what I know about rugby! Scotland failed to get out of first gear and were punished heavily for it. When ‘Chunk’ is your greatest attacking threat you know you are in trouble (no disrespect to Chunk who was in fine form). Very few Scotland players could leave Murrayfield with anything other than a distinct sense of shame and deja vu as, yet again, when expected to produce, they turn in a abject display.Before going into slightly more depth about Scotland, a word on France. Was impressed with the French in patches and think they will fancy their chances of topping the group – indeed they may now feel the Grand Slam is a possibility. There was flair in bucket-loads and they have some devastating finishing power. Yes, they got the luck of the bounce (and the ref) but players need to put themselves into position to take advantage of any luck that comes their way and the French did that in deadly fashion. Also, great support from the travelling hordes who I’m sure enjoyed the Scottish hospitality – on and off the pitch.
Now to Scotland and some thoughts:
Scrum – as soon as Hamilton went off it crumbled. In the first half they pushed the French about, won the ball against the head, and made the most of their 7kg (or thereabout) weight advantage per man. Second half, Scotland strap on the flip-flops and crumble in the scrum. A unmitigated disaster and a total mess – in military terms it was FUBAR. Major work needs to be done before Saturday, at least though we ain’t playing the English forwards who would murder us in the scrum.
Dan Parks – as schizophrenic a performance as you will ever see. Great drop goal and 2 great kicks into the corners, but also a missed penalty, a kick-off straight into touch and an attempt to kick a ball clear that my grandmother (94 and with a bad hip) would have done a better job with.
Andy Henderson – getting his 50th cap and lucky to not be punished of the day or cited after. Showed passion but allowed the French to get to him and his game suffered.
Jason White – another disappointing display from White. He’s not vocal enough to be captain when the team is struggling. If he plays well he is able to lead by example but when the crap hits the fan he provides little leadership. I think his game suffers with the responsibility and a review is needed of his captaincy.
I really could go on and on. Why are our basic skills so bad? Catching a rugby ball should be a basic skill for a club player yet our international representatives treat the ball like its on fire. Again too many tackles missed and we got bullied around the breakdown. Very disappointing.
A final couple of points on Sunday. Alain Rolland (the Rat?) was, in my opinion, poor. The lead up to the first try included a pass that was so forward it wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s Super Bowl. He was about 10 feet away yet missed it. The line judge also needs to look at himself as he should have a had a perfect view of both the lob forward and also Traille pulling back Andy Henderson. Generally felt the refereeing was fairly poor and at present the standard of refereeing at international seems to be on the slide. Bring back Jim Fleming. Finally, a note on the home support who were back to the usual quiet unsupportive best. The loudest the home support got was moaning at Dan Parks. If the guy is having a shocker how about trying to support him rather than moan? It was a frustrating performance but if the players needed inspiration they got none from those in the stands.
Onwards and upwards then. Wales on Saturday and I still think we can get something out of the game. De Luca needs to retain his place, the pressure will be off and I think you’ll see more of him away from home. Frank Hadden needs to just let the players play their own game, no tactics to stop the Welsh lets just attack them from the kick off. Scotland can still go on and have a good tournament, the players I had so much hope in haven’t become poor overnight, they just need to keep it simple and keep it going forward.
Sunday was hard to take but I’ll be cheering on the guys on Saturday and I’m sure they will get the backing from the full country! Good luck Scotland!
My esteemed colleague Al (Scottish Rugby Blog’s own “bad cop”) will no doubt chime in with a hatchet piece at some point in the week, and it will take me a while to digest the slapping we took on Sunday – not to mention the beer on Saturday night – but for now I will say this: rugby balls have been the same shape for a good number of years now. Surely professional rugby players should be able to account for this when running headlong towards it? And if not, surely it wouldn’t be the most strenuous of coaching sessions to take 30 seconds to point out to them that it looks like an egg, and may behave accordingly?
… the Scotland A team to play Italy in Venice on the 3rd Feb. The back division looks a bit weaker than the first XV – with the exception of the half-backs – but the pack looks like they’d give the full team a run in an old-fashioned probables vs possibles type match. It is nice to see the likes of Rennie (Bourgoin) and McMillan (Wasps) getting a chance, but I am disappointed prop Nick Lloyd of Saracens hasn’t been given a shout due to his recent form.
Backs: C MacRae (Edinburgh), S Danielli (Ulster), B Cairns (Edinburgh), G Morrison (Glasgow), T Evans (Glasgow), P Godman (Edinburgh), R Lawson (capt) (Gloucester)
Forwards: A Dickinson (Gloucester), D Hall (Glasgow), M Low (Glasgow), M Rennie (Bourgoin), A Kellock (Glasgow), A Strokosch (Gloucester), J Beattie (Glasgow), R Rennie (Edinburgh)
Subs: S Lawson (Sale), C Smith (Edinburgh), C Hamilton (Edinburgh), J Eddie (Glasgow), M McMillan (Wasps), G Ross (Saracens), J Houston (Edinburgh)
To England: I don’t hate you. Most of us who actually like rugby rather than nationalism don’t hate you. Except maybe for that Aussie chap who claimed it as a national pastime. Hatred is reserved for people who murder, people who rape or Simon Cowell. We just wish you’d play nicer rugby. Or if you have to win anything, be a bit more gracious about it. And mostly we just wish Jeremy Guscott would stop occasionally saying nice things about Scotland so that he can return to the holy trifecta of Austin Healy and Brian Moore as the people we can shout at on the telly. Now that Laurence has gone, Catty and Corry too, I have one thing to say: best of luck Brian.
To Ireland: the Celtic cousins who we used to beat on a regular basis, I am fervently hoping for a return to this state of affairs. I am not sure what is going on over the pond, but giving Eddie another 4 years on his contract just before some of your worst performances in recent memory may be symptomatic. Give the new lads a run, the Luke Fitzgeralds or the Rob Kearneys of the squad, just to shake up the backs that have been looking at each other for too long at provincial and national level. And give Jackman a run to bring back the spirit of Uncle Fester to Irish hooking.
To Wales: listen to your new coach, and bring some pride back to the valleys, even if he tells you to do it with a kiwi accent. Just be thankful you didn’t get Matt Williams.
To Italy: sorry we beat you in the World Cup, but it was nice to meet you all over in France. You’ve got a new coach with a taste for biltong and when they announced that, I quailed inwardly. I think it means that the gap will narrow further between us all, making wooden spoons a more regular occurrence all round. But really I will smile and say that this is a good thing, because five nations (plus the other three) were alone for far too long.
To France: thanks for your hospitality in October, but I hope you don’t expect us to return the favour on Sunday. The new coaching team may have blown through the old squad like the after effects of too much camembert, but you better make sure that you repay the French public for taking to rugby like the proverbial duck a la eau – if they can’t have Seabass, they will want Triomphe!
To Scotland: It’s been a funny old year but here, this weekend, is your chance to show us what is changing in Scottish rugby. Show us that tackling and kicking are not the only things that you know how to do. Show us that you have the nerve to hold your man and pass when 70,000 people and countless others with a tie to this little country of ours are screaming at you to score. Show us that the promise of the youngsters will not be smothered by the excuse of inexperience. Show us that this is the year when you turn from a good team into a great team, into a team that can hold on for 75 minutes and then grind out the win, not be ground out themselves. Pinch their ball and push them about, and keep the ball. Don’t try and play them at their own game and don’t get pushed about in turn. The era of moral victories is over. The era of “nearly” is over. Assert yourselves and keep going forward and the crowd will be yours, and the country will be yours, and the victory will be yours.
And then we’ll get gubbed by Italy in the grand slam decider. It’s my birthday this weekend, but I don’t care. Because the Six Nations, the greatest tournament in rugby, is about to start.
Franky ‘Baws’ Hadden today named his XV for the game against France on Sunday. My initial thought was that this is a team set up to attack the French, and that seems like a fair plan but the big shock is the omission of Chris Paterson from the XV. Paterson will start Scotland’s 6 Nations campaign on the bench and presumably Dan Parks will take over kicking duties. Parks has been on good form for Glasgow as of late and will be hoping that this can be carried over to the international arena.
So here is the XV:
1. Allan Jacobsen
2. Ross Ford
3. Euan Murray
4. Nathan Hines
5. Jim Hamilton
6. Jason White (c)
7. John Barclay
8. Dave Callam
9. Mike Blair
10. Dan Parks
11. Simon Webster
12. Andy Henderson
13. Nick de Luca
14. Nikki Walker
15. Rory Lamont
Looking at that team makes me think that Scotland are going to try and attack France from the off and it is a brave (note: brave in the Scottish way i.e. tinged with prudence and not the French manner of 6 uncapped players!). I have to admit to some shock at Paterson admission since he is possibly the most reliable goal kicker in International rugby but it also shows just how much faith Hadden now has in Parks. There has always been a sneaky suspicion that Paterson doesn’t provide enough in open play and that may well have gone against him in this game.
Having now had a chance to look at the team I can see the logic that is possibly at work. Initially I was also surprised to see Mike Blair rather than Chris Cusiter start as I have always felt that he (Blair) is slightly more defensive and not as creative as Cusiter. In the main the backs are exciting, dynamic players and I’m sure that Hadden will look at Blair and Parks to be the more fulcrum around which the rest of the backs will operate. A tighter control in these areas may help Scotland provide a more focussed attack. This is certainly a very attacking line-up, the forwards are all capable ball carriers and able to put in BIG hits and the backs will hopefully look to utilise any space that opens up. With France making so many changes Scotland are out to unsettle the French and be as aggressive and offensive as possible. Could we see Scotland dominate the French? Lets hope so!
A couple of other quick points. The addition of Nick De Luca is heartening. He is a young guy who is playing great rugby at Edinburgh and deserves his chance. His experience of 7s should ensure his handling skill and lightning quick pace make an impact at international level. His inclusion also allows us to play Webster on the wing, his best position, and should hopefully see more from him. Couple that with Nikki Walker on the other side and Scotland presents 2 very different types of winger. The inclusion of John Barclay is also encouraging as he is another young player with the potential to make a mark at this level. His ability to put in big hits is coupled with good handling skills, especially in the contact areas, and hopefully he can go some way to helping to provide a strong base which Scotland can attack from.
Overall an exciting team and a hint of the future. Paterson can count himself unlucky and no doubt he will start other games (particularly away) but with the chance of France blooding so many new players Scotland are looking to attack from the off and get right in amongst the French. In a previous piece I predicted Scotland to win and having seen the team I stick by that…I just hope I’m right!!!
Backs: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Morgan Parra, Francois Trin-Dhuc, David Skrela, Florian Fritz, Damien Traille, Vincent Clerc, Julien Malzieu, Cedric Heymans, Aurelien Rougerie.
Forwards: Julien Brugnaut, Lionel Faure, Jean-Baptiste Poux, William Servat, Dimitri Szarzewski, Loic Jacquet, Lionel Nallet, Arnaud Mela, Julien Bonnaire, Thierry Dusautoir, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Elvis Vermeulen.
New French coach Marc Lievremont announced his first squad, full of Frenchmen I have never heard of, despite watching a stupid amount of Heineken Cup rugby over the last few weekends. Looks like Elissalde is annointed at scrum half, but the Number 10 debate looks no nearer to being settled. Poitrenaud is for me one of the key omissions in the backs – but then he never got a chance in the World Cup, either. People’s champion Chabal being left out will also be pretty controversial in France. Still, maybe he’s following a time-honoured tradition amongst the French coaching nobility and will change his mind/team/shorts at the last moment. Maybe Betsen retiring was all a rumour as well…
So I’m no nearer to getting a picture on which France team turns up at Murrayfield on the 3rd. Which is, perhaps, the point.
Some quick news snippets relating to the other nations (what nations, I hear you ask?):
Martyn Williams has announced he will in fact answer Wales and Warren Gatland’s call in the upcoming 6 Nations. Not particularly surprising – the same thing happened when Matt Williams left and Nathan Hines came out of retirement. Williams is crucial to Wales at the moment so the decision to ask him back was a no-brainer and maybe says something about Gatland’s pulling power (as it were).
Speaking of Williamses, our favourite antipodean cousin Matt has returned to Ireland to coach Ulster, who scraped a win over Bourgouin at the weekend, representing a considerable turnaround in their recent fortunes. Maybe they’ll appoint him the new Irish backs coach, too.
From over the channel, a raft of retirements including Dominici, Pelous, Ibanez and Betsen. This leaves the list of potential captains ever-shrinking, so Lionel Nallet has been given the France captaincy by the new coaching team. Even more in flux than ever, now is the time to catch France napping.
England picked a Tongan on the wing. Still, if he had a granny from Arbroath, we’d probably pick him too. He said he’d have played for Tonga if they had called, but “some bloke called Andrew” got there first.
Italy will have a new face at scrum half after the retirement of Troncon and Nick Mallett announced a squad mostly unchanged from the World Cup, but without Paul Griffen. This will presumably mean the Italian squad can now revert to the national expectations of three day growth and slicked-back hair from their sporting figures.
Last, a little bit of home news. Seems like Scottish ref and Jonathan Davies’ punching bag Malcolm Changeleng has decided to quit top level whistleblowing. Rumour over on the Scotsman comments said it was due to the Irish vetoing his appointment for a Six Nations game. A bit of a controversial figure with coaches, in the games I saw he always seemed to make more correct decisions than blunders and he didn’t take any crap, as befits a referee in this great egg chase of ours.
Part I – Best Xmas Present….Ever!
I remember Christmas growing up being all about the lead up to the big day and whether or not Santa Claus had paid attention to the letter sent in June with my demands for Christmas presents. Sure, as the years go by this anticipation has faded slightly – especially since the demand is now mainly for cold hard cash – but you still hope to get what you asked for. Along with the sock and a knitted jumper from Auntie Agnes there was the good stuff, the ZX Spectrum, the BMX racer and the Eagle-Eye Action Man. I’ve spent most of last year on my absolute best behaviour to try and ensure that Santa had no reason to screw me out of the good stuff and sure enough the fat jolly fellow came through with the full list of goodies. Little did I know that my main Christmas wish for the last 2 years was also to be granted…
Having participated in the usual seasonal over-indulgence I had returned to work with a heavy heart and a pickled liver and have been looking for any distraction to help me through the long days manacled to my desk. Tuesday granted such a distraction with the announcement of Scotland’s 6 Nations training squad. Whilst the headline was all about Scott Murray’s exclusion from the squad (more about that later) the real news, and proof of a benevolent god, was that Marcus Di ‘Ohno’ Rollo was missing! For the last couple of years Di Ohno has been the epitome of a shirt filler, offering Scotland nothing except filling a space…badly. His calling card was missed tackles, fumbled balls and the attacking verve of post-box. For what feels like an eternity now (although probably only a couple of years) I’ve prayed to the rugby gods to have mercy and have cursed them everytime a Scotland squad was announced with Di Ohno’s name included. How he managed to masquerade as an international rugby player is one of life’s great mysteries but he must also be given some credit, for his omission was not made by Hadden but rather by the player himself. Having managed to only muster a solitary minutes play since moving to France, Di Ohno has seen the light and, ironically, given his greatest contribution to the Scotland cause by removing himself from it. For that Marcus I salute you.
Despite all that there is still a chance he could make a comeback. Maybe playing in France will sharpen his basic skills and add a new dimension to his game but for that to happen he needs game time and he just isn’t getting that at present.
As for Scott Murray I would expect to see him return at some point. At only 31 he can still compete at the international level and his experience (87 caps) will always be a valuable commodity. It will be interesting to see how the Scottish lineout works without his commanding presence – Hadden admits the competition for the 2nd row is fierce but if the lineout and scrum struggle he may well need to turn to the experience of Murray to help balance out the youth. Like Di Rollo he should benefit from playing in France and I suspect he will be back in the national side at some point.
Part II – A Chance to Shine…
Last years 6 Nations was all about building up for the World Cup in France and as such (even though finishing with the wooden spoon was horrific) I think fans were able to at least point to a continuing requirement for development of a squad which had its eyes firmly set on the World Cup. This year Frank Hadden and the boys won’t have such a cushion, fans will expect results, especially at home and look for a big improvement away from home. Scotland go into the tournament coming off the back of a fairly successful – if not ground breaking – World Cup. The tournament in France (and Scotland and Wales!) saw the emergence of Rory Lamont as a real threat from the back and Dan Parks finally proved that at the international level he can indeed cut the mustard (see vs Italy in St Etienne). The most encouraging thing about this Scotland team is that there is a real sense of development. The training squad has 6 uncapped faces yet the squad doesn’t feel like a major overhaul. Rather it’s a transition from the old to the new, players in form for their clubs and for the first time in years I think there is competition for place across the squad. The improvements in the domestic professional sides also points towards progress – not awe inspiring, zero-to-hero transformations, but the forming of good solid units able to hold their own in European competition and challenge in the Magners League. The exodus from Edinburgh during the summer was alarming but Andy Robinson has done a sterling job in both building that team back up to where it can compete and has started to rebuild his own reputation after his England debacle. I never bought into the ‘Fortress Scotland’ policy and I, personally, feel that the exodus of Scotland players to French and English leagues will only expand their experience and help improve the skill levels.
So, with no further ado, here is a quick look at what I think could happen over the course of the championship:
Scotland v France (3pm, Sunday 3rd February, Murrayfield) – France come into the game on the back of a mixed but ultimately disappointing World Cup and having lost some big players (Ibanez, Dominici). As ever it depends which French side decides to turn up, the side that is full of flair and incisive running angles, or the side that can’t handle a rugby ball covered in super glue! If Scotland can put real pressure on the breakdown areas then France are vulnerable, they showed at the World Cup that they can be forced into errors and with Chris Paterson in the side Scotland are well positioned to take advantage of any penalties coming their way. I see this a game where the Scots will try to exercise a varied kicking game aiming for two areas. Firstly I think Dan Parks looking to kick long either for territory and touch or kicking behind the backs to turn the defence. Parks game came of age at the World Cup and he’ll surely look to direct the game from the back. Secondly I think Scotland will look (through Rory Lamont in particular) to kick the up-and-under either right of top of the French backs or in the no-mans-land between the forwards and backs if the game becomes stretched. They’ll surely look to his and Webster’s pace to be able to reach the man as he receives the ball in an attempt to either turn-over or draw the penalty.
Predictions: Heart – Scotland win.
Head – Scotland win, it’s a home match so think that’ll swing it.
Wales v Scotland (2pm, Saturday 9th February, Millennium Stadium) – Christ, I struggle to predict this. Scotland’s 2nd game in 6 days is at the magnificent Millennium Stadium and should see a close match. If the French are mixed then the Welsh are positively schizophrenic in terms of performance. The Welsh have the ability in the backs to destroy pretty much any team they come up against but are equally as likely to do an Elmer Fudd impersonation and have a ‘shoot themselves in the face with a shotgun’ type calamity. New coach in place, so will be interesting to see what reaction they get to that. I think Scotland will dominate the pack (for once – ed.) and possibly the breakdown (as they did last year) but Wales will always pose a threat on the counter. I was at the Wales game last year and they were as poor a side as I have seen in a long time, totally dominated by Scotland for large parts of the match and poor James Hook looked like a lost child in Tesco the Saturday before Xmas. The passion of the Welsh crowd could (should?) make a difference in the game this time round.
Heart – Scotland win
Head – Welsh win – close match but some magic from the Welsh backs will be too much for Scotland
Ireland v Scotland (5pm, Saturday 23rd February, Croke Park) – One word sums up Ireland at the World Cup – insipid! Truly awful, plunged new depths of awfulness and the much vaunted world class players contrived to look more suited to Gaelic Football than Rugby! So this should be an easy victory for Scotland. Well, no, probably not. If you were to draw a bell curve both these sides would be a the same level but at different ends – Scotland are a team on the make, developing with each game and progressing all the time whilst the Irish have seen it all and are, for too many players, past their best. This should make for an interesting battle but I suspect there will only be a score or so between the teams. It’ll be a scrappy, forward-orientated type affair but a lot will depend on Ireland’s big creative players and whether they can show the magic of previous years. At the World Cup they only ended up putting themselves under pressure when trying to run from deep and you suspect that they are a collection of players rather than a team. Scotland could kick them to death as the Irish of late have looked ragged and prone to coughing up penalties, but I’d also look to Scotland’s backs being able to open up the Irish. Another cracking atmosphere in store at Croke Park. Anyone got a ticket?
Heart – Scotland win
Head – Scotland win – think this Scotland side have too much for the current Irish squad and work better as a unit.
Scotland v England (3.15pm, Saturday 8th March, Murrayfield) – The big one. Good v Evil. Balanced opinion v hyperbole. Wooden spoon holders v World Cup finalists. Congrats to the English for getting to the World Cup Final. Commiserations to the rest of rugby civilisation for being forced to watch the worst side ever to reach a World Cup final. Funny side the English, lost a lot of players recently but by all accounts the youngsters coming up are pretty decent. Much like Scotland they have a developing squad where evolution, rather than revolution, is the policy. Brian Ashton seems to be doing a decent job with someone else’s squad but it’ll be interesting to see where their points come from. The addition of big Vainikolo is interesting and brave. Ripping up the Guinness Premiership with 8 tries so far he has the potential to be a star (along with Sackey) for the English, but can he cut it at international level? Ashton maintains that his lack of kicking ability is not a problem saying something along the lines of why should a 6″2′ 18 stone winger want to kick the ball? Well, lots of reasons really. Defensively it’ll be a huge step up and whilst he’s big Scotland also have big wingers these days who won’t be afraid to challenge Vainikolo. I fully expect the Scots to try and pressure him heavily and force him into kicking. Otherwise this game will be the usual Scotland v England heavy match, blood, guts, thunder, no little passion and a good piss up afterwards.
Heart – Scotland win
Head – England win – we beat them the last time at Murrayfield so they’ll look to get revenge, plus its England and no side in the world is jammier!
Italy v Scotland (1pm, Saturday 15th March, Rome) – Scotland Grand Slam decider…maybe! Or maybe not. Italy are a decent side who have improved beyond recognition in the last few years, demonstrated by just how disappointed they were to not get out of the groups at the World Cup. In saying that I still expect Scotland to have too much. Kaine Robertson scares the living daylights out of me but without Troncon to lead, you wonder just how they will get on in this tournament. At home they are a good side and usually try to attack the opposition but this leaves them open to wiser teams to hit on the counter. The victory for Scotland in the World Cup was scrappy and hard fought but it shouldn’t have been. Indeed in that game if Scotland had played more sensibly the match could have been over
inside the first 20 minutes. The one advantage to this game is that it won’t be marred by the awful refereeing of Kaplan who single-handedly destroyed the game at the World Cup. Italy are no mugs but they are not great at the back and can be forced into silly errors. It will be interesting to see if Italy maintain their antics of diving from the World Cup? Its not something we need to see in rugby. Great supporters, good team, poor sportsmanship. If Scotland play their game they should win barring any major mistakes (World Class Phil lookin’ at you…again!).
Heart – Scotland win
Head – Scotland win – no mistakes guys…..please!
So there you go – ill-informed nonsense in the best possible way! If my heart is right Scotland will romp to Grand Slam glory. It’s not outwith the realms of possibility (if not probability), this is a 6 Nations in flux this year and I would hope to see a strong showing from the Scotland team. We can certainly beat all the other teams but it’s about stringing together some results, and ultimately I suspect that where we will fall down. I can see us winning 3 games and finishing 3rd or 2nd with the English doing enough for the tournament win. Wouldn’t be a surprise if the table is very congested and teams take point off each other. From the Scotland team I just want to see continued progress and some more attacking verve – play to our strengths and let teams worry about us, rather than the other way round.
Finally, let me just say that above all I just want to see good rugby, strong defences and imaginative attacks. I hope all those who are coming to watch rugby at Murrayfield have a good time in Edinburgh (even if your team gets cuffed) and enjoy the rugby folks!
Over and out…