Another One Back in the Fold

Scott Macleod has announced he is signing for Edinburgh, part of the SRU’s growing effort to herd in some of our lost sheep and get them playing rugby in the Scottish meadow again. Apologies for the over-extended pastoral metaphor there.

He has recently been out of favour for Llanelli following a second drugs testing incident – both of which he has been cleared over and only recently got back on to the bench. It’s a shame as he was playing a blinder down there for a while and was a fixture in their second row. However Edinburgh could always use more locks and with the pairing of Jim Hamilton and Scott MacLeod they now have some real potential there. No word on Rob Dewey’s mooted move to Glasgow as yet, but the SRU are definitely pushing to have a core of players in country where their availability can be controlled.

6 Nations – the ill-informed view…

Having not had the opportunity to post for a while now I thought I had better remove my finger and provide the world with some more of my ramblings.

You guys have had it too good since New Year, having the pleasure of Rory’s well-considered musings on the game.  As with any good partnership you need the Yin and Yang – I am the screaming, cursing, bipolar (“we’re great…nah, we’re sh*te”), Townsend-sceptic rugby fan in comparison to Rory’s deer-stalker wearing, drinks out the back of the Land Rover, Townsend-lovin’ rugby toff.  As such my musings are formed purely of prejudice, half-baked ideas and a tenuous knowledge of the rules (I played in the front row, no need for rules!).

The 6 Nations are less that 2 weeks away and this year’s tournament looks like it is shaping up to be a cracker.  The Northern Hemisphere’s premier tournament is always essential viewing but this year there is a general feeling that pretty much every team has the ability to pick up results…well maybe except England!  Here are my thoughts on Scotland in the lead up to the big kick-off, look out for my views on the other teams in the coming days:

Scotland

Every year, without fail, I’ll look at the Scotland squad and think to myself that it looks pretty strong and that with a wee bit of luck this could be the year we string some result together and maybe claim a wee bit of glory.  Every year I’m wrong and the last couple of 6 Nations have seen Scotland win 2 games…out of 10!  Can this be the year where Scotland turn promise into results?

Well, yes!

Hadden has by far and away his strongest squad in his tenure as top dog.  A pack that is possibility the best in the tournament and a set of backs that, whilst not the finished article, look like they might actually score some points.  The club sides are producing good results (think Glasgow and Edinburgh winning in France) and are pushing at the right end of the Magners League.  Key to their success has been the breakthrough of a number of younger players and this has fed into the national side where an injection of fresh blood has been needed for sometime now.  Since the last 6 Nations the national team has toured Argentina picking up a win in the process and put in 2 encouraging displays in their Autumn Internationals (didn’t see the NZ game but didn’t sound great).  The game against South Africa, the world champions, showed just how far the team have come…and how far they still have to go.  We bullied the South Africans around in the pack.  The forwards were tight and very, very aggressive.  The backs ran good angles and with a little more precision could have scored more points.   That though is where they still have issue: finishing off the chances they create.  For Scotland to prosper this coming 6 Nations they need to take the form from the South Africa and Canada games and add the finishing – if, and it’s still a big if, they can do that then they may well have a very good tournament.

This Scotland team has the look of a team that is still a distance from peaking (2011 would be nice!) but if they continue to develop at the same rate as the last 12 months then the future should be good, or at least better than what has gone before.  A successful Scotland side will help ensure that the punters turn up in number ensuring more money into the SRU coffers which will then, hopefully be fed into the grass routes (and not Chris Cusiter’s pockets!) to bring on the next generation of players.

A quick note on Hadden, who like his squad, appears to have come on leaps and bounds in the last 12 months.  I’ve never been a huge fan (despite the fact he put up while Rory and I dribbling drunken nonsense to him in St Etienne) but he seems to have got a better idea of the game he wants to play.  Like most Scotland fans I’m delighted that Dan Parks has burnt the dodgy pictures he must have had of Hadden and he is no longer compelled to pick him.  Hadden has a depth of squad that has not been available to him in the last couple of years and this should allow him to develop a Plan B in the case any games are going pear shaped.  Of course this means that the excuses that Hadden has used to cover his own inadequacies are not going to wash.  This tournament will cast a fair eye over Hadden’s abilities at this level.

Finally, the backroom staff appears to be doing a good job, the pack is tight (although the lineout is still in need of work) and provide an extremely solid base for attacking the opposition.  As much as I was never a huge Townsend fan when he was a player (way too erratic) if his coaching is half as good as his thoughts on the game then we should see a back line that will trouble even the best sides in the world.

Predictions:

So, can Scotland win the 6 Nations?  Yes!

Really?  Well it’s certainly not outwith the realms of possibility and we are certainly due a run of luck in terms of injuries and the bounce of the ball…

The first game against Wales is the key.  Wales, off the back of a Grand Slam and a decent set of Autumn Internationals will be looking to start strong but Murrayfield is far from a happy hunting ground for the singing coal miners.  Presuming Scotland don’t forget how to tackle, they will fancy bloodying the noses of the Welsh and setting up a lip-smacking clash in Paris the following week.  The other home games should be winnable (the Irish are on the slide in my opinion, and Italy should still always be beatable) so a lot comes down to the trips to Paris and London.  Scotland don’t travel that well (not lately anyway!) but this is a Scotland squad filled with players who have won on French soil (albeit at club level) so Paris may not be so scary.  As for England, who knows but this could well be the year the Scots end the Twickers hoodoo!

Head: Mid table mediocrity.  Win against Ireland and Italy at home, lose in France, just miss out in a classic open running game versus Wales and a lack of composure in scoring position ultimately see us lost to England by a score.  4th / 3rd
Heart: Get off to a flyer against Wales, lose in France but pick up 3 more victories, including a gritty display at Twickers to records a long awaited victory to finish 1st or 2nd.
Arse:  Lose badly against a buoyant Welsh side, struggle for composure in France, run Ireland close but lose and face an England side that suddenly comes into form at the right time.  Sneak a win at home to Italy to avoid the wooden spoon.  5th.

Fixtures:

Scotland v Wales (Murrayfield) – Sunday 8th February, 3pm.
France v Scotland (Stade France) – Saturday 14th February, 3pm
Scotland v Italy (Murrayfield) – Saturday 28th February, 3pm
Scotland v Ireland (Murrayfield) – Saturday 14th March, 5pm
England v Scotland (Twickenham) – Saturday 21st March, 3.30pm

P&J Ditches Clermont, Moves To Glasgow…And So Does Chris Cusiter

Chris Cusiter has in fact signed for Glasgow, rumours in L’Equipe to the contrary. This means they will now have former Wasp Mark McMillan (when he returns to fitness) as well as Colin Gregor to cover scrum half, perhaps a sign of the growing depth in Scottish rugby. I don’t know where it leaves Sam Pinder though, other than perhaps playing in National One. Rumours were that the SRU had offered Cusiter a record high salary to tempt him back and away from the jaws of Clermont Auvergne – whether this is the case or not remains to be seen. We’ll probably find out if the SRU declares insolvency.

With one of the best scrum halves in the world currently (yes I said it) in Mike Blair holding down the 9 shirt and the captaincy, Cusiter obviously believes he needs to be closer to Frank Hadden’s office if he is to return to his Scotland and Lion halcyon days. For those of the rest of us who don’t see much French rugby it will be interesting to see what sort of player the Francophised (not a word, I know) Cusiter is. I bet Glasgow don’t let him call the line-outs…

Clermont set to become P & J’s Favourite Rugby Team

Lovers of all things Aberdonian such as the above mentioned newspaper may be interested in rumours that Chris Cusiter is not coming “home” to Glasgow (and possibly crippling the SRU salary budget) but off to join fellow North East man Jason White at Clermont Auvergne. According to an article in French sports paper L’Equipe (and I’m paraphrasing here from the French):

This is not yet official, but Chris Cusiter should play for Clermont next season. After two years in Perpignan, the Scottish international scrum-half  (age 26, 39 caps) chose to join the Auvergne club  where he will be in competition with Morgan Parra of Bourgouin. Indeed, the French international has just signed to ASM for the four next seasons. This transfer confirms a little more the departure of Pierre Mignoni. The international (age 31, 28 caps) will leave Clermont after six years of faithful service, and should join Toulon, the club where he began his professional career.

To be honest it’s probably sensible, given Glasgow’s Mark McMillan was going well until his injury and they have backup in Colin Gregor and I suppose Sam Pinder. It might hurt his international chances but Hadden has so far been fair. When he wasn’t playing for Perpignan,  he wasn’t for Scotland either. Now he is playing and in form too, he’s back in the squad and sure to hold down at least the bench scrum half spot. Maybe out of favour Rory Lawson should come back to Glasgow instead?

Further information on some other potential Scotland transfers mentioned a while back can be found in the Telegraph, of all places, including news that Edinburgh may be after lock Scott Macleod but are definitely not after Rob Dewey… which is fair enough as locks are what they need at the moment…

France Playing Loony Tunes Again

France’s Coach Marc Lievremont has named a Six Nations squad shorn of Vincent Clerc (one of the standouts of last year), and with only one “dedicated” stand-off in Lionel Beauxis, who has not played exclusively in that position for Stade having been over shadowed by Argentinian Juan Martin Hernandez. Still, it does feature some of the usual suspects (Jauzion, Heymans, Rougerie, Elissalde, Chabal, Dusautoir) alongside those I’ve never heard of, despite watching a fair amount of European rugby this year.

Still, look what happened to us last time we said “oh check out crazy Marc, we might have a chance here”. Scotland were going to win the Six Nations by kicking off with a victory against a novice French team, and we got humped 6-27 at home. This time round, Ireland are the guinea pigs.

France squad – Backs: Maxime Medard, Clement Poitrenaud, Cedric Heymans (all Toulouse), Alexis Palisson (Brive), Julien Malzieu, Aurelien Rougerie (both Clermont-Auvergne), Yannick Jauzion, Florian Fritz (both Toulouse), Benoit Baby (Clermont-Auvergne), Maxime Mermoz (Perpignan), Lionel Beauxis (Stade Francais), Jean-Baptiste Elissalde (Toulouse), Sebastien Tillous-Borde (Castres), Morgan Parra (Bourgoin).
Forwards: Julien Bonnaire (Clermont-Auvergne), Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse), Fulgence Ouedraogo, Louis Picamoles (both Montpellier), Damien Chouly (Perpignan), Sebastien Chabal (Sale), Lionel Nallet (Castres), Romain Millo-Chluski (Toulouse), Jerome Thion (Biarritz), Guilhem Guirado (Perpignan), Benjamin Kayser (Leicester), Dimitri Szarzewski (Stade Francais), Nicolas Mas (Perpignan), Lionel Faure (Sale), Fabien Barcella (Biarritz), Fabien Lecouls (Toulouse).

In other news on the rest of my trawl around the Sky Sports Rugby site I found an intriguing ad offering me a 3/1 bet on England for an outright win in the Six Nations, which if had had any tea in my mouth would have made me spray it all over my screen. I also found Stuart Barnes extolling the virtues of Glasgow and John Barclay, Will Greenwood naming Glasgow in 3 of his 5 thingies “of the Week” awards and a Lions XV “Team of the Week” where Ally Kellock and Max Evans were the only Scots. Still, some of the ludicrous pro-irish XV selections in the comments were quite a laugh. Tomas O’ Leary? C’mon.

Enjoy the Heineken Cup weekend coming up in which Edinburgh are out to spoil Leinster’s party, and Glasgow are out to umm, not lose against the Dragons again. Next week I – or hopefully we, ahem – will start the Six Nations buildup, this being the time of year when Al comes out of his cave with a big bag of tuppences…

Scotland Six Nations Training Squad

Scotland coach Frank Hadden springs the odd surprise in today’s announcement of his 33 man Six Nations training squad, most notably the addition of tyro Glasgow fly-half Ruaridh Jackson, presumably rewarded for a storming game against Bath in the Heineken Cup. While it’s unlikely that Jackson will make the test 22s (barring injury), he should learn much at training at this level. It’s good that Hadden is starting to bring young players on to a big stage sooner in the same way that Australia or France have done in recent years. If he can handle it, why not? Maybe Frank has grown a pair. Or maybe it is just the influence of crazy Gregor Townsend.

Other newcomers/returnees include prop Geoff Cross and winger Simon Danielli. Absentees include Rob Dewey, Scott MacLeod and the injured Rory Lamont and Matt Mutschin who will be sad to miss out on his Six Nations debut, having come to international rugby late in his career. I’m glad to see Chris Cusiter – who has been a regular fixture for Perpignan depsite rumours of a move to Clermont with big Jason or a possible return home to Glasgow – back in the fold. Ally Kellock may also have played his way back into at least a bench spot with some recent strong, feisty performances. having said that, now that Simon Taylor is playing almost exclusively at lock for Stade, perhaps he or Jason White will get a run there. That might be the real test of how willing Hadden (who I believe sees Taylor as an 8 ) is to throw the dice.

This squad may well be trimmed down somewhat before the final selections are made for the Six Nations which kicks off against Wales on the 8th of February. What would be your team selection based on these?

Scotland squad:

Backs: Mike Blair (capt), Ben Cairns (both Edinburgh), Chris Cusiter (Perpignan), Simon Danielli (Ulster), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh), Thom Evans, Max Evans (both Glasgow Warriors), Phil Godman (Edinburgh), Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Lamont (Northampton Saints), Rory Lawson (Gloucester), Graeme Morrison, Dan Parks (both Glasgow Warriors), Chris Paterson, Hugo Southwell and Simon Webster (all Edinburgh)

Forwards: John Barclay, Kelly Brown (both Glasgow Warriors), Geoff Cross (Edinburgh), Alasdair Dickinson (Gloucester), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Scott Gray (Northampton Saints), Dougie Hall (Glasgow Warriors), Craig Hamilton, Jim Hamilton (both Edinburgh), Nathan Hines (Perpignan), Allister Hogg, Allan Jacobsen (both Edinburgh), Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors), Euan Murray (Northampton Saints), Alasdair Strokosch (Gloucester), Simon Taylor (Stade Francais), Jason White (Sale Sharks).

The Emperor’s New Clothes

So the new blog theme is finally completed, I hope you like it. There may be a few little adjustments to be made here and there so if you spot anything wonky please let me know. Suggestions gratefully received for version 3.0! One thing I am working on is a “classics” header for the archive section similar to the one above but with players of a slightly older vintage. If any of you have any pictures they’d be most welcome.

I’ve also taken this opportunity to update some of the pages like the Scottish Rugby on TV list which is now a pretty comprehensive guide to watching rugby (not just Scottish) on TV in the UK. I’d still like to get channel details from readers overseas (US, Canada, Aus, NZ etc) who might want to help spread the rugby gospel and help ex-pats or interested parties keep up with the boys in navy. Not the boys in the navy, mind, though we wish them well too. The About Us page has been freshened up too, with a bit more information on how you loyal readers could help out the blog if you were so inclined.

Speaking of which, I’d also like to take this opportunity to point out we have a new social bookmarking site on our links, namely Punditit. Fraser got in touch to tell us a bit about the new site:

Punditit is a great new website that aims to make it very easy to find the sports stories on the web that are worth reading. When you find an interesting sports story anywhere on the web that you want to share, simply submit the URL to Punditit. The link will then appear on the New News page and if it gets enough votes it will move to the Front Page. As all the stories on the Front Page have been voted there by Punditit’s expert community of users you know they are worth reading. A simple concept that makes things easier for all of us, so go to Punditit get voting for Scottish Rugby Blog Stories now!

I’ve been over there and although it covers a lot of sports, rugby is definitely not shunted into the background so it’s worth a look. And we don’t have to talk about rugby all the time… I’ll be back later with news of the Scotland squad announcement due today.

Glasgow Beat Toulouse

Toulouse 26 – 33 Glasgow

Yes, you read that correctly. A historic result for Glasgow Rugby today saw Glasgow shock pre-tournament favourites and poster boys of French Club rugby Toulouse in the Heineken Cup. Not only that, but they did it in Toulouse, forcing the home crowd to suffer a range of emotions from histrionic booing through stunned silence and frantic cheering as their team chased what was in the end a losing bonus point. Glasgow opened hard and kept phenomenal pressure up on Toulouse’s attack. From a back division this skilled – Michalak, Clerc, Ellisalde, Poitrenaud among them – it was telling that their handling was made to look poor as they tried to get into  gear. Man of the Match Max Evans had a wonky moment early on as he chipped rather than cleared from his own line, but Toulouse failed to capitalise and from then on he was at the heart of Glasgow’s attack. Dan Parks, in at the last minute for promising youngster Ruaridh Jackson, did little wrong and distributed well to the powerful Morrison and threatening Evans boys. Thom Evans in particular is on a hot streak where everything he tries comes off. We can only hope the bounce of the ball will continue to go his way during the Six Nations, where he must start – his defence is now swiftly catching up on his attack. Morrison also did plenty to cement his grip on the Scotland 12 shirt. With Paterson playing at 10 for 30 mins yesterday after Godman took a hamstring knock, Parks may well yet have a part to play in Scotland’s Six Nations too.

After taking a 9-22 lead in at half time, Glasgow found themselves on the receiving end of a blistering Toulouse attack. Guy Noves emptied out his bucket marked “cavalry” and brought on the likes of Florian Fritz, Byron Kelleher and Fabian Pelous. The game was tranformed as the passes stuck (for the most part) and Glasgow’s attacking ball was stifled. Sustained pressure saw a penalty try from a scrum, a few kicks and some more typical Toulouse back play leading to a try. Here were go, you thought, as Glasgow seemed to be opened up at will by Kelleher’s darting breaks and the gap on the scoreboard closed bit by bit: normal service resumed.

Only it wasn’t. After a quick bought of fisticuffs that saw Ellisalde and Barclay sin-binned, Glasgow seemed to weather the storm. Max Evans even scored another try. The crowd went quiet as they slowly realised the unthinkable was about to happen. Toulouse were going to lose. By the time they could only kick for a losing bonus point with the last play of the game –  an undeserved victory long since out of reach thanks to Glasgow’s miserly defence – the furious booing had started. One senses it may continue for some time in the South of France.

But here in Scotland: nothing but cheering.

Friday Night Special

Edinburgh 32 – 14 Castres

Quick update on Edinburgh’s abortive Heineken Cup campaign: tonight they have claimed a decent home victory against an under-strength Castres side. Tries from Cairns, Godman, Ford and his replacement Kelly ensure a bonus point which will go nicely towards their draw seedings for next year’s competition if little else. Just back from a rib injury, Mossy got on for about half an hour – presumably at standoff – but more worrying news is Nick De Luca’s 21st minute substitution which suggests an injury of some sort. It might make the centre picks for the Six Nations a little easier I suppose, with Morrison and Cairns the clear favourites in De Luca’s absence. Injury news as we get it!

UPDATE: Godman was taken off with a hamstring knock as a precaution, so that could be worrying. Nick De Luca went off with a head knock but should be fine in a week or two.

Stephen Jones Says Something Agreeable 2 Weeks Running

There must be something in the water…

Townsend Turning
They recently announced some figures in Scotland that purported to show a major revolution in the sport north of the border, with increased numbers playing the game and watching the professional teams.

All very fine, although if you delved beneath the figures you found that, basically, Jock McTavish and his mate had started to play rugby for someone’s under-13s and that Jimmy Stewart has agreed to go to watch Edinburgh now and again provided it’s not raining.

Still, good luck to them, a Scotland rugby revival is the next key to the well-being of the RBS Six Nations and even small rises are turning a tide. And, in my opinion, that revival came a little closer last week when it was announced that Gregor Townsend, the former Scotland back, had joined Frank Hadden’s coaching set-up – this after an odd period when Townsend seemed to have been banished to the outer limits.

The choice is superb. I have always regarded Townsend as a genius, although not without flaws. He didn’t pick the best time to be born, since his deftness, passing, ability to put people into space and all-round expertise were somewhat wasted. Those outside him in the Scotland teams for which he played between 1993 and 2003 were not on his wavelength, some were not even on the same planet.

Look what happened when they gave him players to bounce off – he was able to marshal the 1997 Lions to victory in South Africa. A career that took him to Northampton, Brive and Castres also gave him a wider vision. I used to love watching him end on, to see him work his angles. His wisdom and modest manner could well herald a revival in Scotland back play and something better in terms of the scoreboard. Those are the numbers that really matter.

Full article can be found on the Times Website.

Scotland vs Ireland Looking Close to Sell-Out

A bit of actual news reporting for you here! Your faithful correspondent was up at the crack of dawn today to try and snare a couple of the last few cheap seats for Scotland’s Six Nations Clash with Ireland. By the end of the waiting process the following was clear: no “cheap” ie £30 pairs of tickets left anywhere in the stadium, let alone 4! However due to some cunning use of the “back” button (that “nearby seat finder” thing is rubbish) and randomly adding single tickets to the basket, I eventually managed to get hold of two close to each other separated only by a couple of rows in a glorious and hopeflly dry corner of the lower North Stand. This means that at least one match this Six Nations will have full Scottish Rugby Blog coverage. But probably not this particular one, as we’ll have been in the pub all day. Furthermore the SRU website reports that 4,500 tickets were sold in the first hour this morning. Reportedly first in the queue for tickets in person was a young man unwilling to reveal his identity to the SRU press office as he’d taken a sickie off work to grab the tickets. As usual no tickets are on sale on match day, so get yours now – a sensible enough policy for the big matches which usually sell out anyway but for the Autumn Ints and Italy, it’s a bit silly. They could probably pick up a few extra quid and lord knows they need it. Once those cheapest seats are all gone it’s the “luxury” of the West Stand… Tickets are also still available for Scotland vs Wales and Scotland vs Italy. You can also try our advertiser links in the top right as well so no excuse (other than impending global financial catastrophe) for not supporting the boys.

Why Ireland, you ask? Well, because we might beat them, I’d reply. And I’ve been at the last two home Calcutta Cups not to mention a couple of stiffings by the All Blacks and I’d quite like to see something fun in a full stadium. Okay beating England was fun, but hardly a rugby spectacle. Whether this wish will be fulfilled by the men in green from across the sea is another matter.

Still, the craic will be good.

Pro Team Results

Edinburgh – rubbish game of rugby – “turgid” according to BBC Ulster commentators – little atmosphere (even with Matt Williams to rib), yet Edinburgh come away with a 21-15 victory at Murrayfield after a blistering early start. Southwell, Blair and Hogg gathered the early plaudits.

Glasgow – lots of pace and running about, an exciting match right to the last play of the ball on the Dragons try line, multiple line breaks, people scoring tries from their own half and a referee who allowed rucking with the feet to the delight of the assembled BBC Scotland commentators (all forwards). Yet Glasgow are defeated 3 tries to 1 and lost 20-25.

What can you do, huh?

Toony Army Marches On

The SRU announced today via their shiny new website that former Scotland and Lions (not to mention Gala, Northampton, Brive, Warringah, Sharks etc etc) standoff and centre Gregor Townsend is to take over the coaching of Scotland’s back division for the upcoming Six Nations. While this is certain to set the fingers muttering in Al’s neck of the woods due to Gregor’s, shall we say, inconsistencies as a player, I reckon it could be a good move. Edinburgh’s backs (Godman and Cairns in particular) seem to have benefitted from his recent input by showing a bit more of a cutting edge, and his mentoring scheme of pairing young Scottish talent with past masters such as Gavin Hastings, Sean Fitzpatrick and, er, himself was the envy of many, including All Black Kevin Mealamu. And besides, Parks and World Class Phil already know plenty about throwing intercept passes and running up their own backsides.

He also has more coaching qualifications than his Lions captain and current England manager Martin Johnson, so far as I can find out.