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…