“Taking the positives” is a phrase unmatched in rugby when it comes to my levels of hatred for it. It’s sadly become Andy Nicol’s catchphrase, every bit as recognisable as John Inverdale forgetting that there are teams beyond England that could win the Six Nations, Doddie Weir wearing a garish (but brilliant) tartan suit, English complaints about Steve Walsh, ponderings about “which French team will show up”, praise for the Millennium Stadium’s atmosphere, ill-thought out metaphors about the state of Murrayfield’s pitch and the proclamation of Brian O’Driscoll as Ireland’s “talisman.”
Unfortunately for Scottish fans, Alan Hansen’s favoured lines are more appropriate when summing up our 2014 championship. “Shocking” and “diabolical” are amidst the nicer phrases you might’ve heard since Saturday.
Is this the lowest Scotland have ever been in the modern age? It seems hard to think otherwise when the wounds are still so raw. A mauling from Ireland. A humiliation against England. An all-important “W” thrown away to France and a vicious thrashing from Wales. I’d call the latter tear-inducing but after the preceding weeks mosts Scots will have had none left.
There was the impressive win against Italy, but that will be, unfairly or no, dismissed by critics as a match we should always take two points from. There was the dominant display against France but again the common explanation seems rather to favour a poor French team than a good Scottish one. In years from now when a Telegraph hack again suggests that Scotland be kicked out of this historic tournament they helped to found, the summary of 2014 will be four losses and one win. Against Italy.
There are obvious negatives that require little explanation and for once I’m forced to agree with people who argue player selection. Whether Duncan Weir will be world-class one day is irrelevant; he is not now though Scotland’s constant failure in the position is hardly his fault alone. Ross Ford may well have been a British Lion once but the new (old) scrum rules require a skill set he doesn’t possess, and whilst the line-out cock-ups aren’t solely the fault of one man, he can’t escape his responsibility for them. Greig Laidlaw is a decent scrum-half, but his lack of pace is made blindingly obvious when he’s replaced by Chris Cusiter, his kicking has been abysmal and his defensive shortcomings cruelly exposed against the strength of the Welsh backs on Saturday. Kelly Brown is an admirable man, but he’s no number 7 and when a team racks up what I think totalled roughly three hundred penalties per match as Scotland have over the past two months, the Captain must stand up and take the flak.
And then there’s Scott Johnson who I can’t help but feel sorry for. The man may not be international head coach material, but it’s only fair to remember he didn’t want the job in the first place. He came to Scotland as an attack coach and stayed to be Director of Rugby, agreeing to look after the squad for one season (a season too many are quick to forget we were largely happy with). Vern Cotter was supposed to be leading the squad into the light by now. Circumstances prevailed and we’ll need to wait to see if another Kiwi is worthy of the metaphorical kilt.
It’s also unfair to phrase the situation as Johnson being ‘promoted’ following a dismal run as head coach. Director of Rugby may well be technically ‘above’ National Team Head Coach, but it’s a different job altogether. Johnson is now charged with developing the game across Scotland at all its levels. Fans of the national team understandably bemoaned his experimental and risk taking nature, but those are exactly the qualities he’ll need if he is to be successful as Director. It is to Cotter we’ll look for consistency in the national squad, but behind the scenes we’ll need young players blooded, new tactics tried out and left-field ideas trialled. If there’s one thing all Scottish fans can agree on, it’s that the game needs a major shake-up in Scotland. None of us are served by international players sitting on the bench week after week for Glasgow, and yet it’s not Gregor Townsend’s job to supply talent for the country. He’s there to win for Glasgow. Finding and fielding that talent both North of the border and elsewhere will now be Johnson’s task, and he’ll be able to do it absent the many distractions he’ll have been faced with over the past fourteen months.
I promised positives though, and distraught though I was watching that final match, alone in a dark corner of an English bar, there are some to be taken.
Stuart Hogg’s red of course ended the contest. The Welsh press were immediately ecstatic at the scoreline, but against fourteen demoralised Scots who had experienced their lowest ebb at international level and had just lost their fullback, the truth is the scoreline should have hit sixty or seventy. The fact that it did not is testament to Scotland. The boys in blue made 115 tackles, but forced the dragons facing them to make 165. They conceded 20 turnovers, but won back 15. The enjoyed 55% and 58% of possession and territory respectively. They beat the oft-glorified Welsh scrum, and though their 9 penalties were too high for this level, they forced the home team into giving away 12.
Wales won the match by running through gaps, and with Scotland’s last man no doubt greetin’ in the changing room, there were very large gaps indeed. Wales made 16 clear breaks to Scotland’s 4, but each time a Scottish player ran through he had seven backs to combat him. The Welsh didn’t and whilst they cannot be blamed for playing the opposition that was presented to them, they cannot take much pride in it either.
Of course as Scott Johnson told us back when everyone still liked him, statistics are a bit like a bikini in showing you a lot, but not the whole package. Scotland’s successful Soviet warfare of last year, dropping back to the last and then striking back with impunity was seen only in one stat; the scoreline. All others pointed towards their demise so it would be right to look at these more recent numbers with a pinch of salt. They are there for the viewing, however.
There have been lows this year that made Scotland fans feel like extras in Crimson Tide as the sub begins to crush under the ocean’s pressure. There have been limited highs, but highs nonetheless. When certain changes were made, our lineout was impenetrable. Those same changes took a faltering scrum and made it mercilessly boss the French around the mud of Murrayfield. Alex Dunbar is surely the brightest young star of the tourney, but Chris Fusaro has nothing to be ashamed of either, being one of the few (or do I mean ‘two’) rays of hope in the most horrific Calcutta Cup match of recent times. Jim Hamilton had a stand-out tourney and hopefully silenced most of his frequent critics. Matt Scott may do well to remember he isn’t quite big enough to bulldoze through players of Paul O’Connell’s stature, but I’m reminded somewhat of a young Sean Lamont and he has only improved with age. We’ve seen we have strength in the backs; no, not as much as others but more than we’re used to and considering only about fifty people play regular rugby in Scotland, that’s heartening.
Others are better placed than I to judge the up and coming unseen talent of this season, and yet more will hold a greater knowledge than me of the SRU’s failing’s at lower levels that hamper us at the top (though killing the Reivers was surely a grievous error), but from what we saw on the pitch this year, it’s not all doom and gloom.
As a final note I’ve refrained from passing judgment on Hogg’s red thus far and I’m not going to do so now. What matters is he screwed up and we all paid the price. Those calling for an extended ban however, I can’t understand for a moment. Hogg is arguably our best hope for the future. He’s a man at an age that means for a while yet I’ll describe him as a kid, and he behaved like one, and he’s been punished. There may be more to follow tomorrow but we didn’t come second-to-last in this tournament because of one young player. One day however, we may finish considerably higher because of him.