Hot Potato – Scotland Drop The Ball Against France

With two weeks to go until the next round of Six Nations games, we Scotland fans now have a short while to sit back and gather our thoughts. So with that in mind, here are some freshly gathered ones.

Frank Hadden has asserted that Scotland will “make an impact” in this tournament, although it remains to be seen whether or not that impact will be the “thud” as we hit the bottom of the table. This impact will have to come on the back of a resounding defeat against Wales and an unlucky defeat marred by the odd dodgy decision and some pretty crap handling against France. Both types of defeat are sadly nothing new to Scotland fans, it’s the big tick in the W column that is missing. The France game was much closer to where we want to be and like the South Africa game in the Autumn, showed that we can compete with the big teams – especially if they have an off-day.

Speaking of “off-days”, how much longer are we going to have to suffer the short end of the stick from referees and officials? My assertion on spotting an Irish referee at kick-off that we would be screwed proved somewhat accurate, with debut referee George Clancy willing to give a try (resulting from obstruction and a forward pass) despite being unsighted at the time, having been tackled by Jason White. If it’s going to take officials being allowed to check further back than the act of grounding with the Video Ref for Scotland (and other smaller nations) to get parity when we need it most, I’m all for it. Jonathan Davies in the BBC’s post match forum characterised this sort of thing as whingeing – but if Wales were on the other end of a dodgy decision or two you’d never hear the end of it from him. After Alain Rolland allowing Martyn Williams to run riot last weekend, I hope the next referee is not Irish. Aren’t they supposed to be our celtic cousins?

The advantage of the type of result we saw against France is that at least we can see the specific areas needed for improvement (rather than just “everything”). Townsend has mentioned he’ll be working on those support lines but there is still some way to go. Surely “If Mike Blair Goes Through A Gap You Follow Him As Fast As You Can” is not that tricky a mantra to learn? It’s short enough to stick on a banner and hang it in the changing room. You could even stick in a couple of F-bombs to make it seem like Jim Telfer is saying it. The Evans boys are clearly on each other’s wavelengths when it comes to attack, but the rest of the team are all tuned in to different stations at times. At least Barclay was listening. Get on to Radio Mike Blair, boys – it’s a good listen as I said as far back as November. Learning not to knock on would be a good one too – that spoiled a pretty solid comeback for Danielli. And of course there’s the whole issue of not having a fully functioning pack at scrum or lineout due to some silly selection choices. That’s a relatively new one though and I hope it doesn’t last much longer than say, the middle of this week. We were all over the French line-out in the first 20 minutes, and after our only lock Jim Hamilton departed, nary a challenge. The less said about the scrum the better, but the lack of fit props in the correct position and a proper second row to push was telling. It may also have affected Ford who showed up less in the loose than he did in the early periods. Former Highland man Moray Low may have done enough to earn a start against Italy and perhaps Dickinson will revert to the bench – or Chunk’s number 1 shirt?

The defence was solid though, and the breakdown much more efficiently patrolled. Strokosch has surely done enough to get his name on the team sheet for the remaining games, although such is his enthusiasm for playing rugby we have to hope he doesn’t injure himself turning out for Gloucester this weekend – or that Hadden doesn’t use this as an excuse not to pick him. For the backline, Blair, Godman, Evans, Morrison, Evans, Paterson, Southwell was pretty effective but the ball they got was still not brilliant. Again Cusiter showed real zip with his service and we may see him appear earlier in the coming weeks as a like-for-like and captain-for-captain substitution as against Wales. Can he direct an attack as well as Blair though?

Hopefully against Italy things will be a bit better for us – we are now left with them, Ireland and England: three matches we would have targeted for a win at the start. Italy are still beatable even with a proper scrum-half and we need to make sure the little class we do have tells against them. Ireland used to be our whipping boys in the 80s and early 90s, but this team look the real deal now with a Munster-like edge up front and Leinster’s class in the backs – Heaslip in particular is starting to make a major run for the Lions 8 shirt. England still have shown little to make us truly quake but they did improve against Wales and will always be fierce comptetitors at home. A few years ago, big Nathan was seen as a penalty liability and Euan Murray was the guy who had that strange accident, discovered God and disappeared off to Northampton. Now, it turns out they are cornerstones of this team and the way we want to play. Hines and Murray can’t come back quickly enough.

UPDATE: Euan Murray is hoped to be fit to play against Italy. Other (not too serious) injuries are Simon Danielli, Phil Godman, Mike Blair, Moray Low, Jason White and Kelly Brown – all “are expected to resume training in the next two to three days” while Graeme Morrison is recovering from an ankle injury. Italy tickets are still available.

DOUBLE UPDATE: I watched the match again on BBC iPlayer and that pass was definitely forward! Chunk’s offside/onside tackle on the French scrum half that led to Kelly Brown’s “try” is much less clear cut. If the ball was out, it’s a split second thing and 9/10 times would be ruled offside. It is also increasingly clear that Phil Godman had a pretty good game – check out the pace he displays haring for the corner before extricating himself from a ruck to set up Evans’ try with his favourite inside pass. Is it just me, or is he faster than most of the other 10s on offer? Jones, O’ Gara, Goode, even Cipriani – he may not have other aspects they have to their game (yet), but I’m pretty sure he has them beaten for leg speed.

Good Luck Chuck

Quick round-up: Scotland U20s were trounced fairly comprehensively by the French, 30-3. The Scotland Club International side lost to their French counterparts by only a point 13-12, so unlucky there guys. No word on the A team score as yet but with Ruaridh Jackson at 10, Cairns as captain the 35-10 scoreline was pretty disappointing (after 14-3 at half time). Lineen on the radio blamed the tries conceded on the breakdown and scrum, so worrying signs there.

Below are some headlines we would like to see come Sunday:

Evans Above
Manna from Evans
French Strokosched Over the Head
Max-Imum Impact
Phil Man-God
Poitrenaud Use Against Rampant Scots

And some we wouldn’t:

Jason White-wash
Scots Left Singing Les Blues on Valentines Day
Have you Haddenough Yet?
Simon Dani-hell’s Bells

Any Editors that want to use any of these for the Sunday papers, you are more than welcome.

All the best to the boys tomorrow. I’m actually less hesitant about our chances than against Wales. We may get beaten if the French play properly and if they play very well then we could be in trouble, but if they don’t show up then we have a definite chance. The Toulouse back line should hold no fear for the Evans brothers in particular, and I hope Mike Blair can have a good game and lead from the front.

Your country is counting on you to restore some pride. Remember the Toony flip? Go for it lads.

UPDATE: Report on the A Team game on Planet Rugby.

A-Team Ready To Jump in Slow Motion Over The Camera… ahem, I mean, Rock

Newly demoted Ben Cairns and Sean Lamont get a chance to prove that the selector’s don’t know what they are talking about when they take to the field vs Ireland A tomorrow night at the RDS, Dublin, (k.o 7.30pm). Some new faces in the pack which means Ally Hogg gets a chance to “rest” this weekend. Young Glasgow hope Ruairidh Jackson is given a chance to lead the team’s attack from 10 after only two professional starts and it’s a clear sign he is being groomed for, well, something. Possibly being shuffled around the backline until he is near retirement age?

SCOTLAND A (v Ireland A): S Jones (Newcastle); S Lamont (Northampton), B Cairns (Edinburgh) capt, R Dewey (Ulster), J Thompson (Edinburgh); R Jackson, M McMillan; E Kalman, F Thomson (all Glasgow), D Young (Gloucester), C Hamilton (Edinburgh), D Turner (Glasgow), S Newlands (Edinburgh), J Beattie (Glasgow), A MacDonald (Edinburgh). Subs: S Lawson (Gloucester), S Corsar (Rotherham), S MacLeod (Edinburgh), S Swindall (Glasgow), G Laidlaw (Edinburgh), G Ross (Saracens).

Not much chance of finding this one on telly anywhere as it might be fun, but if there is I’ll keep you posted. It could well be on the radio though.

UPDATE: Don’t forget to make changes to your Fantasy Teams ahead of the weekend!

Le Team…

Hadden never makes changes…ever!

Well, except this time.

Scotland have made 5 changes to the starting XV for this Saturday’s game against the French in Paris. In come both Max and Thom Evans to the starting line-up, joined by Simon Danielli, Alasdair Strokosch and Alasdair Dickinson. The full team for the game is:

First XV:

1. Allan Jacobsen (Edinburgh)
2. Ross Ford (Edinburgh)
3. Alasdair Dickinson (Gloucester)
4. Jason White (Sale)
5. Jim Hamilton (Edinburgh)
6. Alasdair Strokosh (Gloucester)
7. John Barclay (Glagow)
8. Simon Taylor (Stade Francais)

9. Mike Blair (Edinburgh)
10. Phil Godman (Edinburgh)
11. Thom Evans (Glasgow)
12. Graeme Morrison (Glasgow)
13. Max Evans (Glasgow)
14. Simon Danielli (Ulster)
15. Hugo Southwell (Edinburgh)

Replacements:
Dougie Hall (Glasgow); Moray Low (Glasgow); Kelly Brown (Glasgow); Scott Gray (Northampton); Chris Cusiter (Perpignan); Chris Paterson (Edinburgh); Nick De Luca (Edinburgh)

Having only had a few minutes to digest I’ve a couple of thoughts.

Firstly this looks like a side set up to attack, the backs are quick and have natural finishers. The choice of Danielli is interesting, didn’t see that one coming but fits with the policy of one big and one not so big (there is no small in international rugby!) winger. Obviously no Paterson again and, considering his decent performance against the Welsh, that is slightly surprising. He does however allow you to put more depth on the bench as he can cover a number of positions. The additions of both Evans boys is encouraging and if they can get decent ball they have the skills and sheer pace to frighten the French.

Happy to see Strokosch in the starting line-up, he’ll certainly add a bit of bite and God help a Frenchman on the wrong side of a ruck! He’ll feel he has a point to prove after missing out against the Welsh and we can only hope he channels his aggression and passion in a more productive manner than Geoff Cross. Disappointed to see that White has kept is starting slot. Nothing against him, he is a cracking player, but this is not his strongest position and he looks like he is lacking match fitness. Surely a fit and ready Ally Kellock would have better? Moray Low doesn’t quite make the starting XV but at least he is on the bench and edges towards the elusive first cap.

Overall I’m pretty happy – this is a team that should have been selected last week. If we had Murray and Hines I’d be very optimistic about going to France. As it is the main worry for me is the pack’s ability to secure good quick ball and put pressure on the French forwards. If, and I think it is a pretty huge if, the pack can perform at the top level we have a back unit that can trouble any side in the competition. If I was French I’d look at that side and look at that back unit and be fairly apprehensive as the way the French play the game leaves them open to attack by speed. This Scotland line-up is quick. There are points in this side but so much comes down to ensuring protection for Blair and Godman.

Much happier this week, and whilst not optimistic of a Scottish victory this squad at least makes me think it’s going to be a damn good game. One thing is for sure, come Saturday evening we’ll know for sure whether Scotland are moving in the right direction and whether Frank Hadden has a future in his post as national coach.

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.