The Life of Doh!

(aka The Frank Hadden Story)

Stupid.

That’s the one word that describes so much of Scotland’s performance last Saturday, from the coaching staff down to the players. Scottish rugby are the masters of turning gold in crap, whether that is on the pitch, on the management bench or up in the comfort of the padded seats for the Blazers.

Scotland botched the whole start to the 6 Nations and were on the back foot from the minute the team was announced. There was genuine excitement in the lead up to the tournament and whilst it would have been nice to fantasise about Grand Slam heroics, most Scotland fans were just looking forward to a steady showing, a couple of wins and sign of greater attacking intent. Instead Hadden chose a side that was a mix of players playing out of position and, in some cases, out of form. As soon as the squad was announced the wind was taken out the sails as it was apparent that Hadden had gone for a lot of the old familiar faces that have been at the heart of the Scotland team over the last couple of disappointing seasons.

To compound this the players generally failed to rise to the occasion and in a couple of cases they made suicidal decisions. Simon Webster was a man under a lot of pressure: a public outcry (even if not reflected in the national press) had surrounded his inclusion instead of the on form (on fire?) Thom Evans. With this in mind, it is understandable that he was eager to put on a display and to make a mark. Alas, having lined his man up he decided to tackle like an idiot, failing to lead with his shoulder and choosing instead his napper. As a result he knocked himself out, and it is surprising that he managed to last as long as he did. Geoff Cross had a debut to forget, literally. Anyone who saw him during the national anthems would have seen how much the occasion meant to him and I was hopeful he would go on to have a good debut. Unfortunately events overtook him and in the end his challenge on a flying Welshman was both reckless and feckless.

So where does this leave us with just 4 days to go until they face the French in Paris?

The easy option is to say that that we’re doomed.

However, all might not be lost. For 20 minutes at the end of the game on Sunday, Scotland started to play a lot flatter and were able to attack the Welsh line. Max Evans scored a corker of a try and I was quite impressed with Paterson when he came on. The key this weekend will be the pack. It is essential that Strokosch is brought back in as his ability to battle and be aggressive will be vital to securing the breakdown. The Welsh were continually flopping over onto the Scottish side of the ruck, and whilst the ref chose not to punish this, the Scottish forwards should have made sure they didn’t want to do this twice. Instead they stood back and did nothing and the whole performance suffered from a lack of controlled and focussed aggression. The news that Hines is not available is a blow but there are suitable direct replacements waiting in the wings and I for one would very much like to see Kellock get a game. He will at least provide expert knowledge of the position and also isn’t afraid to stick the boot in if necessary.

In the backs out should go Lamont (looked off-pace and uninterested), Webster (injured and ineffective) and, unfortunately, Cairns. Cairns had a decent game but since he got almost no service he had little chance to shine and with Max Evans performing so well when he came on you have to feel that Evans has earned the start. Also coming in should be Paterson on one wing and Thom Evans on the other.

Like Rory I thought Cusiter came on and gave a very strong performance. He looked like he got the backs playing flatter and as a result the speed in which Scotland attacked, and broke the gain line, was actually fairly impressive. Cusiter also has the knowledge of the French game and his time overseas has obviously improved his game. However, unlike Rory, I’d stick with Blair. This is a guy who was nominated for world player of the year and whilst he didn’t have a great performance against the Welsh he was another player who was totally undermined by the misfiring pack (thanks Frank!). He deserves another start.

The French lost on Saturday in a cracking match against the Irish but they looked like they had a soft belly. Don’t get me wrong I think they pose a big attacking threat but if made to face a back line full of pace I believe there are weaknesses that the Scotland team can target. To me the French looked off the pace in the final 20 minutes, so if Scotland can stay within 10 points going into the last quarter they will have a chance to get something from the game.

Finally, one request to the Scotland team – make sure the first tackle counts. Too many times on Sunday it took multiple Scotland players to halt the Welsh and if we allow the French the opportunity to off-load in the tackle we leave ourselves open to attack. Hit your men and hit them hard (but not hard enough to knock yourself out cold!).

My head says that France will probably win this game but I do think Scotland can go to Paris and put on a good performance. If they perform to their true abilities then a result might just come.

I’ll be back later once Hadden has announced the squad – fingers crossed he doesn’t make the same mistakes as last week.

Hines Not on the Comeback Trail, Actually

A report up on Scrum.com gives us the skinny that unfortunately Big Nathan will not make it back in time for the France game, as he now requires exploratory surgery on his injured knee. There’s more on the BBC too. This is a big blow for us, more so now that we know how much we missed him against Wales. The pressing question now becomes: is Hadden fool enough to mess about two weeks running? Will he pick a proper lock (Kellock) this time, or at least a back rower with recent experience and form in the position (Taylor)? Either would be more suitable than Jason White who looked short of pace and form. After all, they have both won matches in France this year playing in that position. I’d be tempted to include Cusiter ahead of Blair for the same reason. He looked very sharp, and he’ll know the French players he faces (unlike the rest of us).

A delayed team announcement tomorrow should reveal all. Murray is out till at least the Italy game and everyone else who was a worry seems to have trained in full, but Hadden is waiting on news of head-cases Cross and Webster. Here’s a time saving tip for you Frank: don’t worry about Simon, he’s clearly not going to have “trained well this week” and probably doesn’t know which planet he is on, so there’s no excuse to put him in ahead of Thom Evans. There, that was easy, wasn’t it?

Scrum.com Fantasy XVs Updated

You can now log in and see how your team did, and if you haven’t already signed up there is probably still time to do so here. Reader Kieran has stormed into an early lead due to the somewhat risky selection of Andy Goode at 10 – a selection that may not last long once the tournament rolls on I suspect. You get 15 changes across the whole tournament / 5 max in any one round, so choose your timings carefully. Is Shane Williams worth leaving in as an injury risk? Wednesday should see the next lot of squads announced so you’ll probably want to hold off till then before ditching all the English guys about to get hammered by on-form Wales…or will you jump on the Ireland bandwagon?

Scrum.com have also very kindly asked me to post some tidbits on their 6 Nations Fan Blog section, so once that is up and going you’ll get some additional and largely exclusive ramblings from me over there.

5 Really Stupid Things Scotland Did

For the most part you could argue that for “Scotland” you could read Frank Hadden…

1) Only having one lock on the park. With an already weakened scrum, Jason White played with a bit of heart but wasn’t really the answer in the lineout. Gough and Jones were pretty dominant for Wales in an area we had (before the loss of Hines and rash selections) hoped to target. If he had to play a back rower in the second, surely it would be Simon Taylor who has been doing it all season? Ally Kellock has been playing well for Glasgow, with no little amount of fire in his belly. He’s been in the wilderness long enough – surely it is time for him to return and give some grunt alongside big Jim Hamilton?

2) Early substitutions of Cairns and Barclay. Peter Wright apparently left the commentary box in disgust when Barclay went off. I’m pretty sure “aperplexed” is not a word, but as it combines “apoplectic” and “perpelexed” quite nicely it sums up what was, I am sure, the mood of many. Barclay had been relatively solid to that point, and while his replacement Scott Gray did well, surely one of the cornerstones of our defence and more importantly the one who sets the tone for the forwards (in the absence of Hines and Strokosch) should not come off just when we are getting into the game. The expression on Barclays face as he went off summed it up. I believe the expression was: WTF? While Max Evans did pretty well when he came on, scoring a great try past both Byrne AND Williams, Cairns wasn’t given a chance. I counted about 2 passes he received in 50 minutes. Surely if the crash ball through Morrison wasn’t working he could have had a bit of a chance, or failing a chance, a pass? Now that Max Evans has made his mark, Cairns would under normal circumstances have to fight for his place back from Evans. Having said that I would still stick with Cairns as he has a slight edge defensively but Evans is pushing hard. This being a Frank Hadden team though you could see Andrew Henderson in the team next week for all we know.

3) Not picking Strokosch or Thom Evans. Max’s late try seemed a little like an “I told you so” (though that was not the language I used when I first expressed this thought) from the Evans family to Mr Hadden. His pace and lack of fear set a little spark in the crowd which in turn spurred on the team. “Win the crowd. You will win your freedom” Olly Reed said in Gladiator. Shadows and dust Max Evans, shadows and dust. Imagine what we could have done with two Evans boys in that end period. The big Stroker should definitely come in at 6, with Barclay preserved at 7. Without Hines, Scotland were a blunt-edged instrument in the forwards. Strokes could be the man to return that edge, given his tendency to use anger as a motivating factor. Pick who you like at 8, it’s a tough call between Brown Hogg or Taylor as none of them was outstanding while not being terrible. I’d probably go with Taylor.

4) Playing like headless chickens. So eager to try and fix things after a ropey start, they were knocking balls on, playing Chunk at first receiver (actually not unsuccessful sometimes) or rushing headlong into dangerous tackles. Dr Cross, in particular, will have little to remember (if he can) of his debut cap. Two poor tackles and twenty minutes in and the bench was half empty and the set piece in even worse shape. The Mossy debate was put to bed early as he was forced on to the pitch – where he had a pretty good game and nearly scored two tries. You do wonder though if Evans or Lamont would have had the power to get over for the first of those. Where was the controlled aggression of the Argentina tests or the autumn internationals. Still in Gloucester? Lamont had another off day, and if you were being really out of your gourd inventive you could have an Evans on each wing which keeps Cairns in the backline too. It’s more likely to be another Mossy shuffle though, as we’ll now have forgotten we had confidence in Godman’s goal kicking 24 hours ago even though he wasn’t tested yesterday.

5) Playing the backline too deep. This was the biggie, the final nail in the coffin of an already consumptive corpse. Godman likes to play on the gain line for Edinburgh, yet yesterday he sat way too deep. On instruction perhaps – was that the plan to beat Wales: to sit off their blitz defence rather than try and get in behind them? Is it any surprise that Parks, Hadden’s standoff of choice, likes to sit deep too? Morrison had little chance to make an impact on quick ball as the Welsh defensive line had plenty of time to size him up. Cusiter came on and it seemed like he had instructions to get them flatter. And it worked. This one can be fixed simply – allow Godman to play flat. Giving Cusiter a start at 9 might be a good call given his familiarity with the French and the obvious boost he gave to Scotland’s game. We had talked up Mike Blair but he had a curious off day – he’ll be back I’m sure. With Southwell at 15 you have a big kicker who can sit deep if your plan is to kick. But if you are going forward, you want Godman flat where he is much more dangerous. The solution is NOT to bring Parks in and get him playing flat (or deep). Give Godman a decent game plan playing flat and he should be fine. Don’t be too worried about blitz defences, interceptions or any of that. It happens. Trust in the skills of the players – confidence comes from the top. Regardless of what he says in post-match interviews about how confident he is, Mr Hadden’s game plan is not inspiring confidence either in players or fans. I think we are all sick of seeing feckless and overly conservative Scotland teams, yet we know these players can play fired up, aggressive and attacking rugby. So who is not pushing the ignite switch?

Feel free to add numbers 6-10 below as we lick our wounds and look “forward” to France next week. While one never likes to say I told you so, if there is one message reverberating around the message boards it is that. Do we amateur pundits really know more than the coach this time? It beggars belief.

My team for France would be:
Jacobsen, Ford, Dickinson, Kellock (Hines if fit?), Hamilton, Strokosch, Barclay, Taylor, Cusiter (c), Godman, Evans, Morrison, Cairns, Evans, Southwell with Low, Hall, White, Hogg, Blair, Paterson, Lamont on the bench.

A version of this post also appears on scrum.com

Good Omens?

Scotland U20 18 – 17 Wales U20

See, it’s easy really. I knew there was some rugby on TV tonight but I missed it. Still you can get a BBC report here.

Let’s hope it’s a good omen. Speaking of which, Wales have never lost a Six Nations game Gavin Henson has started. But he’s not starting on Sunday anymore, having been pulled due to a calf strain (his replacement is Tom Shanklin). Interesting – or just straw clutching?

Good luck to Italy tomorrow, and for that matter to England I hope they manage to sort something out. France and Ireland too, here’s looking forward to a great Six Nations. See you on the other side with a roundup.

Stephen Jones Was Not Down In Jungleland

Seems that by being sent to cover England’s infamous “spit roast” tour in NZ last summer, the esteemed Sunday Times pundit missed the Boss at Cardiff Millenium Stadium. Don’t agree with his top 20 songs. Where is Jungleland, Tenth Avenue Freezeout, No Surrender or Dancing in the Dark?

Scottish Rugby Blog 1, Sunday Times 0.

UPDATE: speaking of the mainstream press, it seems that The Scotsman may be planning some live blogging for Scotland’s upcoming Six Nations matches. If you can’t catch it on TV or live online, then there would be worse ways to get a blow by blow of the games. I only say “seems” as I found this site in our stats, but I can’t find any links to it elsewhere…

Will we be vindicated once again?

Just a quick post to let you know that BBC Wales have very kindly/foolishly asked me to present the armchair Scottish pundit’s viewpoint on the team announcements and Six Nations in general on their Good Evening Wales show this evening. Listen out if you can!

UPDATE: You can listen to it here for I’m not sure how long – possibly until 6:34pm Wednesday 11th February. I’m not sure if this will work outside the UK. I’m going to try and get a copy to post up here.

DOUBLE UPDATE: My bit was just before 6pm, I think it’s about 1hr50m into the thing.

Scotland and Wales Announce Teams

That sound you can hear is Mr Expectation, Mr Hope and Mrs Triple-Crown running out of the door, leaving Mr Uhohherewegoagain nursing his pint in the corner.

Is it just me or is this not quite the team we had hoped for? Shorn of Hines, Murray and Strokosch that pack looks a bit cobbled together and out of position, and without Evans at 14 a little short of killer instinct in the backs. It puts an awful lot of pressure on Godman as goalkicker and playmaker. It could just be me, as it’s not that much different to the team I picked earlier in the week and a lot of the calls were close. If there is an injury to Thom that would explain things, but otherwise his exclusion seems dangerously close to folly. I hope this team can prove me wrong…

Scotland team:
Hugo Southwell (Edinburgh), Simon Webster (Edinburgh), Ben Cairns (Edinburgh), Graeme Morrison (Glasgow), Sean Lamont (Northampton), Phil Godman (Edinburgh), Mike Blair (Edinburgh), Allan Jacobsen (Edinburgh), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Geoff Cross (Edinburgh), Jason White (Sale), Jim Hamilton (Edinburgh), Ally Hogg (Edinburgh), Simon Taylor (Stade Francais), John Barclay (Glasgow)

Replacements: Dougie Hall (Glasgow Warriors), Alasdair Dickinson (Gloucester), Kelly Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Gray (Northampton Saints), Chris Cusiter (Perpignan), Chris Paterson (Edinburgh), Max Evans (Glasgow Warriors)

Wales team: Lee Byrne (Ospreys); Leigh Halfpenny (Blues), Jamie Roberts (Blues), Gavin Henson (Ospreys), Shane Williams (Ospreys); Stephen Jones (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Ospreys); Gethin Jenkins (Blues), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Ian Gough (Ospreys), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Ryan Jones (Ospreys, capt), Martyn Williams (Blues), Andy Powell (Blues).
Replacements: Tom Shanklin (Blues), James Hook (Ospreys), Dwayne Peel (Sale), John Yapp (Blues), Huw Bennett (Ospreys), Luke Charteris (Dragons), Dafydd Jones (Scarlets).

UPDATE: I’m not the only one, check out some of the comments about Evans absence on the Scotsman website… There seems to be a sense that if it doesn’t pan out, Frank Hadden is digging a rather large hole for himself on the (unused) Murrayfield back pitches…

UPDATE: Also now that the teams are announced you can make adjustments to your fantasy XVs. For example you can take out Evans and Murray. Bet they don’t let you select your half backs as Mauro Bergomasco and Andy Goode

My Scotland Team Set for “Glory”

This would be the team I announce tomorrow, and here’s why:

15 – Chris Paterson. This was trickier than I thought, which is a good thing. Hugo has been on fire recently, but before the recent rib injury, so was Mossy. Frank Hadden is looking for maturity of decision making from this team, having identified that as the difference between Scotland and South Africa in the Autumn. Scotland’s record cap holder displayed this in spades in the gritty Heineken Cup defeat to Leinster, out-foxing a charging Rob Kearney on a couple of occasions and showing a better ball retention than Paterson of old. Hugo on the other hand does still have a little rash streak. If Scotland are going to live up to their potential this has to be brought under control. Then of course, there’s the kicking. It’s almost a flip of a coin between Hugo’s educated left boot and Mossy’s goal kicking. Sadly we need the points more.

14 – Thom Evans. Time for Thom to step up and make people take notice. Blistering pace, a much improved defence and now the chance to show some of these other chaps (Shane Williams, Rob Kearney) he means business. Named by Stuart Barnes in his Lions XV at the weekend on the back of just 3 caps – although credited as a Welshman! He’s been in miraculous form for Glasgow and the ball seems to bounce his way almost every time. If Hadden is looking for luck, Evans should be the rabbit’s foot he needs.

13 – Ben Cairns. There’s a lot of talk about Max Evans at the moment, and both he and Cairns seem to have jumped De Luca as the bright young things of Scottish centre play. In a tournament where they could come up against the likes of O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Jauzion or Wales powerhouse Jamie Roberts, I think the extra grit in Cairns’ defence gives him the odds over the naivete Evans has been known to show (although he is improving quickly under Lineen). Given a free reign and a little outside space to work in, Cairns could be devastating.

12. – Graeme Morrison. Shown some fine form recently, and will add some bulk to a backline outside him that for once is more pace and raw talent than raw meat. Will need to keep breaking the line though as a Hadden-style 12 should or he’ll soon find himself back in the shark tank with the circling young bloods in the squad such as De Luca, Dewey and Houston. De Luca may be the ideal choice, but he’s never shown ideal form at international level. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t get a run at some point though.

11 – Sean Lamont. Scored a wonderful wingers try recently for the Saints and needs to recapture the form of a couple of years ago. A chance for him to escape the glare of brother Rory’s halo and prove why he’s worth his place in a Scotland team getting younger by the minute. Remember the Sean Lamont who scored 4 tries in one game for Northampton in between Six Nations victories over France and England? Go on Seanie, have a wee run…

10 – Phil Godman. Hopefully the Dan Parks thing has been put to bed. Yes he is reliable, sometimes. Yes he is frequently very good for Glasgow. But Scotland just play better with a mazy runner like World Class Phil bringing them on to the ball. With an attacking back division they need an attacking fly half. Godman has improved his positional and goal kicking too (as has Paterson) making the usual arguments for Parks’ inclusion less relevant. A couple of steady games (dare we hope for a victory?) and the shirt should be his for some time to come. At least until Glasgow’s young pretender Ruaridh Jackson gets picked for a Scotland squad. Oh, wait…

9 – Mike Blair. Probably the form scrum half in Europe over the winter despite a relatively poor showing from the pro-teams. Mike Philips and Danny Care are up there, but there is a coolness to Blair’s game that sets him apart – and keeps him on the pitch head up, rather than in the sin bin or at the bottom of a ruck. Being captain gives him the chance to set the pace and the others will follow if they can keep up. Good to see Chris Cusiter coming back to form and if there is an injury he’ll be chasing hard to get his old shirt back.

8 – Simon Taylor. Damn this one was tricky, as I’m a big fan of Hoggy and Kelly Brown has been playing pretty well for Glasgow (at 6). There’s Johnny Beattie too. There is a wee niggle in my mind that Taylor has been playing at lock all season. In the end Taylor has too much class to leave him out – witness his textbook tackle in the recent Stade vs Perpignan game and a couple of solid performances in the autumn. Hogg and Brown may once again suffer for their back-row versatility and it’s a coin toss for the bench spot.

7 – John Barclay. One of the easiest choices. Hadden fumbled about without a proper 7 for long enough, now he has several itching to get on the pitch. Consistently solid, aggressive yet organised, with good awareness – and sick of losing. His battles with Martin Williams at 7 in the first match and with David Wallace in March could well set the tone for Scotland’s Six Nations, and possibly the Lions tour too.

6 – Al Strokosch. You could pick any one of Jason White, the Big Stroker, Kelly Brown (again), Ally Hogg (again); even Scott Newlands has been in good form. Al Strokosch has been consistent if unexciting for Gloucester so far this season, but in terms of regular playing at 6 it’s between him and Brown. I’ve gone for Strokosch’s extra fire here but he is not yet quite the player he was last season when walked into the Italy dressing room and handed his man of the match award to Sergio Parisse after the Italy game. That shows a level of commitment and sportsmanship that can only be applauded.

5 – Jim Hamilton. In great form since his return to the fold at Edinburgh. Adds tremendous bulk to the front five and is starting to take on a little ball carrying now too. Given his proportions, this makes him hard to stop.

4 – Nathan Hines. News he did not train on Monday is a little concerning. The man from Wagga Wagga has been a fixture on the team sheet since his return from international exile. Continued knee problems could see a last minute replacement by Al Kellock who on recent form may manage to bring a similar amount of niggle as Big Nathan.

3 – Euan Murray. One of the first choices on many team sheets as a result of his sterling play since moving to Northampton to learn at the feet of the great Tom Smith. Recent news of a rib injury could open up a spot for Geoff Cross or Moray Low to make their mark but from Scotland’s point of view Murray has to be fit!

2 – Ross Ford. Offers a lot both in attack and defence. Dougie Hall is coming back to a bit of form after the switch to Glasgow while last season’s incumbent Fergus Thompson has dropped off a bit. Ford is the front runner by some distance, and offers good handling and running as an auxiliary back-row type. In the absence of the bulky back divisions we have seen in the past, forwards like Ford and Hines will need to step up for their share of the ball.

1 – Allan Jacobsen. He might not be praised at Murray’s level but still a capable pair of hands who shows up well in attack. In fact, in last year’s Six Nations he was about the only one who showed up in attack. We can but hope that this year’s brand of Scotland team will allow Chunk to concentrate a little more on the scrummaging. There are a number of younger props coming through though, so Chunk may do well to hold them off.

Bench: Geoff Cross, Dougie Hall, Ally Kellock, Ally Hogg, Chris Cusiter, Max Evans, Hugo Southwell

There are only 2,800 odd tickets left. Go on, you know you want one. A full Murrayfield would really help the team: I’d be there were it not for previous commitments. Damn those commitments.

Six Nations Fantasy Rugby

Hey people, we’d love you to join us playing Six Nations fantasy rugby to pit our amateur punditry skills against one another. It’s a free game, you can sign up here:

http://scrum.fantasyleague.com/

The deadline for teams is (I think) Saturday the 7th before the first game kicks off. Once I’ve set up a mini-league I’ll post the PIN you’ll need to join it in the comments section. I can’t promise a prize for the winner but you never know… if you’re really good I suppose you might win a Land Rover.

Murray Could Be A Worry

BBC reports that great white hope of Scottish propping Euan Murray is recovering from a rib injury and could make him a doubt for our opening Six Nations game. This would be a bit of a blow to be honest, as the scrum was hopefully going to be one of our key strengths in the upcoming tournament. We wish him a swift recovery!

You can read the full story here.