With the EMC tests looming and the daily press releases telling us how our players are “harder, faster, stronger” than ever before whilst the players assure us the group has never been so tight-knit, I must ask: how will the warm up games pan out?
When you read a national newspaper everyone is obsessed with numbers. People want a player rated out of 10, a statistical breakdown of offloads out of the tackle and the number of pints sold at a ground.
Despite being sober and despite the improved nature of our performance we have still lost 3 in a row and look set for a showdown with the Twickenham steamroller, so forgive me for wanting to hide behind statistics and numbers today.
Monday morning: a time to take stock.
If the answers to your bleary Monday morning questions are ‘Yes’ then congratulations: you are either a Russian Billionaire, a skilful Serb or a delusional Egyptian. You are most likely not a Scotsman.
Do not despair, though!
(now with update)
I’m gonna blow my own trumpet…last week, like a new-age Mystic Meg, I predicted Scotland would usurp Ireland and Argentina in the World Rankings. I just had no idea we would do it so soon!
On the 21st of November 2009 Scotland recorded a magnificent result. A win against Australia thought to be nigh on impossible in the days leading up to the fixture. It was some day. Yet while this day was special for everyone lucky enough to see such a spectacle it held extra significance for one young man.
Despite the result Saturday had everything a 6N weekend needs. Plus a little more criminal activity.
Any great story or sporting event has certain key components that make it memorable. If you were making a feature film about a game (Take notes, Mr. Eastwood!) then Scotland vs. Wales certainly met all the right criteria. Somehow I think most of us would have rather seen the director’s cut, though!
To make a blockbuster accessible you need clearly defined heroes and villains. Well there were both at the Millennium Stadium. While Parks cut an unlikely figure as the skilful saviour Chris Paterson took on the role of the elder statesman, before taking his final bow for this campaign. On the other side Shane Williams, aka ‘The Milkman’, popped up at the final twist to ensure a disappointing ending for the Scots. Then we come to the bad guys. I actually feel a little sorry for WCP because if I was the last man for Scotland and it looked like a definite try I would probably take the hit and do what he did. Scott Lawson, however, has no excuse. Bang in the middle of the park, slow ball, numbers up in defence. Basically, the kid had a shocker!
We are not even going to talk about the pantomime villain Jonathan Davies…
Another vital aspect of a Hollywood hit is a level of mystery. Thankfully, Clancy (George not Tom – ed.) had that covered. The scrum was a mess and no one knows why. I’m not saying that Murray was scrummaging well, but it should have been an indicator to Clancy that the scrum stopped nose-diving when James went off the park for a stint. In fact, regardless of who the culprit was a yellow card early doors may have discouraged Lawson from being so naïve later on. Precedence has a tendency to influence decisions later. Clancy left himself so much work in the last quarter.
Blockbusters also need tragedy, and unfortunately the game had this, too. 3 players are out for a long time. It is doubtful that Evans will play again this season and it is looking like Paterson and Lamont will have relatively lengthy lay-offs. The good news is that Evans is improving according to doctors and his surgery was successful. There will now be, though, a few spaces up for grabs for the next game and there should be changes. Evans for Evans makes sense, but why, oh why does Robbo not rate Southwell? Maybe bringing Grove back in would be sensible.
Comedy relief is another thing you need but this didn’t come until after the game. Andy Powell has consequently been dropped from the Welsh team. The worse hangover ever? Maybe not, but the drunken use of a Golf Buggy, no matter how funny it is, is not original. If you want a lesson in going off the rails on a golf course look at Italy’s Stand-off Craig Gower’s Wikipedia page. Can you relate?!
Unfortunately for us, the last thing a sports movie needs is an underdog or comeback story. Well Wales made sure of that. It was almost spectacular how well Scotland were playing in the first half but does our nationalistic pessimism have to always manifest itself? We were the agents of our own downfall. We were 10 points up with 7 minutes left and with a bit less harum scarum and perhaps more sensible ‘cheating’ and gamesmanship we could have seen the result out.
Picking on Byrne is a bit silly. If it was a professional foul then we cannot blame him or the ref. We didn’t see it. ‘Diving’ is a big debate in football, and Thierry Henry’s handball begged the same question, as bloodgate before it; is it ever worth cheating? I know a few club players who will occasionally dive when the situation merits it… and I know a lot of coaches would take the rewards gleaned from it, even if they don’t condone it. No one questions Byrne’s hardness or work ethic. If he did cheat, which is up in the air anyway, then he got a win out of it. I digress. The signs are there that we can achieve something and if we play at the pace we were in the first half for 80 against England, we should win. If we play with the width and guile we had in the first half for 80 against Italy, we should win.
Sorry for all the crippling movie metaphors. A bit cringe, but it gets the point across… kind of. We need the sequel, I mean next game, to be better. But not by much. The pack continues to perform and Ford and Murray should play 80 next time round. Hamilton did surprisingly well considering he’s not played much. Beattie continues to carry like a game breaker. Barclay must rack up more events than anyone else in post match analysis and Brown sat more than one taff on his backside. Now if Parks can play like he did in the next test, obviously without flying up and leaving an Alessandro Zanni-sized hole in defence, then the backline could be firing and exciting, regardless of personnel.
The outlook is good… Just as long as Jonathan Davies isn’t behind you.
Here is also a brief Prem. 1 roundup…
Watsonians 3 – 7 Edinburgh Accies
West of Scotland 20 – 18 Melrose
Dundee High 52 – 5 Stew Mel
We had two wins, a draw and a loss from various national teams. Sounds alright, doesn’t it? However, the public’s opinion of Scottish rugby is shaped entirely by the fortunes of the national side. Every other result is a bonus (or a continued indicator of the fallow years to come; although thankfully this doesn’t seem to be the case!). So let’s put each result in context…
The Scottish Women’s team overcame their French counterparts 10-8 at Lasswade on Saturday giving them the perfect start to their 6N campaign. I cannot testify to knowing too much about women’s rugby, but as a result against regular opponents this looks pretty good and show that a minority, in an already minor sport, can still thrive.
Something I can testify to (allegedly) knowing about is the fortunes of the Scottish Club International side. The team fought hard to win 13-9 in an intense, if not end to end globetrotter-style, match. Much like the Women’s match conditions didn’t favour an exciting, mercurial contest but the endeavour was there. Even 2000 folk braved the dreich Border’s weather to watch. Also, the crowd still got treated to a physical display and some hard running from the likes of Kelly and Weston as well as some great defence from Clapperton and co. What this did show was that Amateur rugby here is improving all the time and more than compares with the French opposition (although comparing myself to my opposite man on Friday night was more like comparing myself to my own father- he looked like he was in his 40’s!).
The under-20s drew 8-all with their French foils. While not the perfect score, it was better than losing! Also, the performances of highly rated youngsters like Maltman and McInally shows the potential we have here. We also have yet another Blair at 10, and lord knows we’re all hoping he proves to be a genius! Rory was at the game, so he will be better placed to tell you if they are likely to win against Wales down there, but the future may seem bright in some areas of that team.
And then there was Sunday. I, for one, am weary of over analysing, but when the shortcomings are that obvious it is rude not to point them out. We all know what they are. 1) The backline are standing so deep during second phase it is surprising they can even see Chris Cusiter. 2) While Johnnie Beattie played outstandingly well in the loose yesterday, it was verging on the cruel the longer he left the ball in the back of the scrum. 3) If a team stands in attack in two banks, most standing in a flat line and some standing in a small group deeper and wider, then we become bamboozled. Twice Bastreaud was in the second group ready to receive passes direct from the flatter group and he scored. Once Clerc, brilliantly tap tackled by Kelly Brown and held up by Evans, broke from a similar situation. 4) Next time (i.e. against Wales) please give the ball to someone quick enough to make an inside break when facing a blitz defence. 5) Jonathan Davies is more annoying than a postal gold advert.
The good thing is, though, that it was still only 9 points we lost by. Look after the ball without forcing the play and we might be alright…maybe?!
So what did you make of the day? What would you do if you were Robbo? And what is going to unlock an equally depressed Welsh team?!
Panic seems to have hit Martin Johnson. Shontayne Hape?! Well we’re used to this in Scotland. Every time Scotland sees a decline in talent in certain positions there seems to be a desperate snatch for anyone Scots qualified, by the SRU. While some might question Andy Robinson’s desire to put in a long term plan for Scottish youth there is almost something admirable in his declaration of interest in the long-term progress of Ayr’s Frazier Climo: a man not eligible for Scotland until 2012. Then there is Dan Parks.
The much derided stand-off has been written off more times than his motor (allegedly), but he keeps coming back for more. As Phil Godman struggled to kick himself out of his shadow and was constantly caught with the ball in his hands during the 1872 cup matches against Glasgow, his opposite man, Parks, had put the ball wherever he wanted and ran the game with metronomic rhythm.
While this may have delighted Glasgow fans you could hear the rest of Scotland groaning. Perhaps not because Parks was back in the frame for a Scotland call up but because the transitional period is set to continue at 10, for us. Parks has, at pro level, the ability to control a game but with rumours he is only interested in reaching a 50th cap and his attentions soon turning to Cardiff’s fortunes the future seems unsure.
This creates an interesting situation. Many believe that Kiwi Climo will slide into Parks’ vacated position at Glasgow while calls to sign up Hutton are increasing in Edinburgh. Every outcome suggests a few more unsure years for the fans regarding the Scottish fly-half berth. While it is obvious that the SRU have no problems bringing in a ‘foreign’ player for the two pro teams it creates a fascinating precedent. Do we really want another situation where a Matt Mustchin is called up for a Scotland tour because no young Scottish players are deemed good enough? Do we want another like Boroughmuir’s Fergus Pringle playing on tour for Scotland ‘A’, maybe the most developmental stage of Scottish international rugby, while talented, if not a little inexperienced, kids stay at home like a few seasons ago?
This situation possibly says more about the state of the pro set-up in Scotland, but it is also true that the infiltration of ‘foreign’ players is evident in all aspects of the Scottish game. Almost every premier club in Scotland has at least one player who is not Scottish qualified. Some teams have more than three every game. What this means is that a disparity occurs. If we are being honest, players like Hutton, Jackson, David Blair and even Climo are too good to play amateur rugby every week but what is coming up behind them is not encouraging. What’s more, most clubs are more interested in league positions, cups and getting one over their rivals. Some cynics can say there is not as much concern about strengthening Scotland as a nation as much as there is an internalized drive to make ‘my club’ stronger. There could be some substance to this. Of course there is the by-product of younger players learning from experienced foreigners. This helps, but it becomes much harder when the best Scottish talents are whisked away by the SRU, or worse, head down south to earn their stripes because there are no places north of Hadrian’s dyke.
The age old shocker of a question arises: what the hell do we do?!
Finally, I’ve known a few overseas players who have landed on their feet in this country. What would I do in their situation if I was asked to play for Scotland? Alex Tait is thinking about it. Even if I had a silver fern tattooed on my arse would I take the cap/pay rise/accolades? Maybe. On Tuesday Paul Tito said “If Wales were in massive dire, dire need I’d probably have a think about it [playing for them].” Doesn’t sound like a definite NO, does it?
What would you do?
It’s a biggie, so expect it to be well culled before the final playing squad of 30-odd is announced. Still, they should be able to have lots of probables versus possibles games and injure each other sufficiently before November rolls around.
Backs: Mike Blair (Edinburgh), Ben Cairns (Edinburgh), Chris Cusiter (Perpignan), Simon Danielli (Ulster), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh), Rob Dewey (Ulster), Max Evans (Glasgow), Thom Evans (Glasgow), Phil Godman (Edinburgh), Andrew Henderson (Glasgow), Stephen Jones (Newcastle), Rory Lamont (Sale), Sean Lamont (Northampton), Rory Lawson (Gloucester), Calum MacRae (Edinburgh), Mark McMillan (Glasgow), Graeme Morrison (Glasgow), Dan Parks (Glasgow), Chris Paterson (Edinburgh), Gordon Ross (Saracens), Hugo Southwell (Edinburgh), Nikki Walker (Ospreys), Simon Webster (Edinburgh).
Forwards: John Barclay (Glasgow), Johnnie Beattie (Glasgow), Kelly Brown (Glasgow), Dave Callam (Edinburgh), Geoff Cross (Edinburgh), Alasdair Dickinson (Gloucester), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Dougie Hall (Glasgow), Craig Hamilton (Edinburgh), Jim Hamilton (Edinburgh), Nathan Hines (Perpignan), Allister Hogg (Edinburgh), Allan Jacobsen (Edinburgh), Alastair Kellock (Glasgow), Gavin Kerr (Edinburgh), Scott Lawson (Gloucester), Moray Low (Glasgow), Scott MacLeod (Scarlets), Euan Murray (Northampton), Scott Murray (Montauban), Matt Mustchin (Edinburgh), Ross Rennie (Edinburgh), Alasdair Strokosch (Gloucester), Simon Taylor (Stade Francais), Fergus Thomson (Glasgow), Dan Turner (Glasgow), Jason White (Sale).
Pick two teams out of that? Or even one team? That task awaits Hadden and his new coaches.
Argentina 14 – 26 Scotland
What a shocker, eh? Did you see that one coming? Having belatedly caught the game on pay per view through Mediazone – disgustingly the only broadcast provider willing to carry it, good on them though – I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. We could mutter about how Scotland had a chance to protect the 15 point plus lead that would have leap-frogged them over Ireland in the IRB rankings, but let’s face it considering some of the recent performances, a win’s a win. That the victory was achieved by playing pacy, running rugby, and by cutting out (most of) the errors on top of the usual solid defence made it all the sweeter.
Funny how you play World Class Phil at 10 and suddenly the emphasis is not on kicking or up-and-unders – probably a good job, as despite a pretty solid performance he did fluff a few touch kicks. Or maybe they were meant to miss touch and force the counter, you know, like Dan Carter does. He attacked the line constantly, passed flat and in front of his runners, and made one sterling break that could have quite easily made a try for Mossy in the corner but for a better timed pass. Speaking of good passes, yes Parks got on, and yes he set up a try with a sweet pass to Morrison off an interception, but by that point it was “shut up shop” time and he was patently brought on to pin the Argies in their own half with his boot. Cairns also made some great breaks, and for the first time in a Scotland shirt looked the real attacking threat we know he could be. Poor De Luca received a total of no passes that I could see. His time will come.
The forwards put in an awesome display (Barclay and Stroker acting like nightclub bouncers around the ball and generally looking up for the challenge), but despite what the rankings say this wasn’t the Argentina that finished 3rd in the World Cup. They were missing the verve of Hernandez and Corletto, and the likes of Longo and Albacete up front. Even with the backing of a passionate crowd they reverted to type-1 rugby. I also thought they didn’t dive into the ruck nearly as effectively as they did in the World Cup, and their turnover rate on our ball was much lower. Or maybe that’s just because Alain Rolland kept an eye on them after the battering they gave Mikey Blair last week.
Next weekend after the Churchill Cup Final – Scotland A vs England Saxons – Al and I will chip in with our end of season thoughts.
So, 15 points. Can we really beat Argentina by that much? Without scoring any tries? With Dan Parks at 10? Not having seen the previous game yet, I can’t really comment specifically but from the sounds of it on the radio we were solid in the set piece but bullied at the breakdown, which led to slow ball, which led to, well, the usual. It’s good to see Stroker in the press with some fire in his belly about losing games we should win, and hopefully Robinson will key the back row (and Alain Rolland) in a bit to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Much like many of you out there, it seems pretty evident to me that regardless of club form or favouritism, the team don’t fire with Parko at 10 (unless we are playing England and it is raining), so it is of little use constantly shuffling the backline when the ball never gets beyond 10 or 12. Therefore I will refrain from discussing the backs. What’s the point?
Don’t forget you can catch the Scotland A game vs Argentina A in the Churchill Cup from 9.30 tonight to see if the understudies can manage what the full team have singularly failed to do, namely beat the Argies. It was a good showing from the A team to beat a stubborn and fired-up Canada on Saturday, but the lack of familiar faces in the team compared to say the England Saxons team does highlight the lack of depth we have in Scotland once you skim off the Glasgow and Edinburgh first 22s and the current crop of big name exiles. A lot of these guys have not been playing first team professional rugby this season, and although you could argue this tour will give them valuable experience, it does show that to get the results we would all love to see, Scotland needs to find a way to sustain more than just a core of about 30-40 players – once these ranks are depleted through injury or the niceties of the French club season, we are severely short of form and experience. Even the A Team coaches have been spirited away to the main team in an effort to bolster confidence, depriving our up and coming players of what would have been a valuable learning process.
Anyway, all the best. Good luck to both teams and I hope I will be proven wrong. Al and I are off to Cardiff to pay homage at the Millennium Stadium, so we may be unavailable for comment after Saturday’s match. Feel free to leave your build-up and feedback on any of the games in the comments below – don’t forget new look Oz and England are both in action this weekend too, against the Irish and All Blacks respectively.
UPDATE: here’s the team, comments below:
Southwell, Paterson, Cairns, Morrison, Webster, Godman, Blair, Jacobsen, Ford, Murray, Mustchin, MacLeod, Strokosch, Barclay, Hogg.
Replacements: Hall, Dickinson, Kellock, Brown, Lawson, Parks, De Luca.