Ireland v Scotland, Croke Park (Dublin), 5pm, Saturday 23rd February
On the day that Fidel Castro decided to retire his Marxist Beard, and spark jubilation amongst the exiled Cubans in Florida, so I also decided to take myself out of my self-imposed rugby exile and started building myself up for the next round of 6 Nations matches. The Scotland side in this championship has born an uncanny resemblance to so many of the flimsy rafts that, over the last few years, have set sail from Cuba to a new life in the US of A. Like these makeshift rafts the Scotland side have been rudderless, fragile and far too easily overwhelmed by the waves of opposition attack.
This tournament has brought nothing but heartbreak for those in the dark blue but the time has come to look to the future and hopefully the shoots of progress can be demonstrated against the Irish at Croke Park this coming Saturday. The team need to learn the lessons from the French and Welsh games (don’t drop the ball would be a marked improvement) and look to try and attack the Irish at every opportunity. Scotland today announced their team (well nearly all of it) and on first appearances it appears far more mobile:
1. Allan Jacobsen
2. Ross Ford
3. Euan Murray
4. Nathan Hines
5. Scott MacLeod
6. Alasdair Strokosh
9. Mike Blair (C)
10. Chris Paterson
11. Rory Lamont
12. Andy Henderson
13. Simon Webster
14. Nikki Walker
15 Hugoooooooooo Southwell
The likes of Dan Parks, Jim Hamilton and Nick De Luca have dropped to the bench whilst Jason White, who has been off form, is out with a head injury but not a poke in the eye…wink wink, nudge nudge). Both 7 and 8 have yet to be decided on as the coaches wait on fitness test for John Barclay. Some points of note:
The Pack – much more mobile than the last couple of games. The addition of MacLeod and Strokosch will take some of the weight out the pack but should make it a much more mobile unit. Strokosch has been in good form for Gloucester and his appetite to carry the ball over the gain line should prove invaluable. With White having been off form hopefully Strokosch can be the man to put in the big hits. Because of the reduced size in the pack hopefully we will see something more dynamic from the forwards who have disappointed all tournament. The lineout will also need to greatly improve because unless Scotland can secure good possession from set pieces the team will continue to struggle as an attacking force.
7 & 8 – Who will fill these positions? The coaching staff are waiting on the fitness of John Barclay so that suggests that if passed fit then he will start at 7. That leaves 3 players fighting it out for the
remaining position in the starting XV; Ally Hogg, Kelly Brown and Ross Rennie. My gut instinct is to go with Ally Hogg, he’s big, he’s fairly mobile, he’s experienced and will at least show passion for the job. I
think Kelly Brown is probably out of the running as he was poor (as was the whole team) against Wales so that leaves Hogg and Rennie. As a back row that would certainly be interesting and a damn site more attacking than what we’ve had in the last two games.
Mike Blair – Blair has been handed the starting berth at 9 and has also been named captain in Jason Whites absence. This is an interesting choice as I would have preferred someone more vocal like Nathan Hines as el Capitan (ok, generally only on the pitch for 70 minutes but certainly a leader!). Blair has been unspectacular and my preference would be for a change in this position. I feel that as good a player as Blair can be he is not attacking enough and the evidence of this tournament supports this. His persistent slowing down of ball and his apparent inability to choose the right pass will mean that the pressure is on him to perform. Another bad performance may see more vocal calls for Cusiter’s inclusion in the next starting XV.
The Backs – Some very interesting decisions here. Rory Lamont (the housewives favourite) has been moved out to the wing and this could be an inspired decision – but it will depend on the ball getting that far. If the ball can reach Lamont (and Walker for that matter) in anything resembling room he has the ability to beat his man. Defensively he is sound so it may help shore up Scotland in the wide areas. Webster in at centre is demonstrative of a Scotland side set up to attack, he’ll get on the ball in the game and he’ll need to be in the frame of mind to try and find the gaps in the Ireland defence. The same can be said of Paterson who’s game time at 10 has been limited but this, at least, guarantee’s his ability to spot a gap will be utilised to the full. Nick de Luca has dropped out which is a shame but his confidence is shot so maybe the chance to be the impact player off the bench would suit him better.
It is apparent from this team that Scotland have looked at the teams succeeding in the tournament so far (France and Wales) and realised that a loose, almost off-the-cuff, method of playing is paying dividends. Do Scotland have the players to do this? On paper yes, they can run and basic errors are down to concentration so there is no reason that Scotland can’t play free flowing rugby. It can’t be any worse than what has gone before. In saying all this the focus really switches onto Hadden. He’s putting out a team that is set up to, finally, attack and throw the rugby ball about. His insistence on keeping it tight seems to have waned but is this the act of a desperate man? Possibly, certainly his tenure as Scotland coach has never looked so weak and this could be his last act to save both Scotland’s tournament and his job. He’s answered some of his critics with this team but he now needs to demonstrate he has the ability to motivate his players and squeeze a good performance out of a group which has been horribly mis-firing.
Finally a quick note of the officials. Its a Franco-Welsh affair with the ref and TMO from France (Ref: Christophe Berdos, TMO: Romain Poite) and the line being Welsh (Nigel Owens, Hugh Watkins). Hopefully the TMO takes his green contacts and a copy of the rules with him.
So, will Saturday see a revolutionary Scotland performance or will it turn into another Bay of Pigs? Who knows, that’s the fun (the pain!) of watching this Scotland team but all I want is performance full of heart….and a try or two would be nice!! Enjoy the game.
Over and Out.