Saturday’s dismal display by Scotland epitomised everything that is wrong with the national side and helped to highlight the current malaise the national side are currently experiencing.
The players, the pitch, the weather and even the fans were as limp as I’ve ever seen them, whilst the pyrotechnics and pre-game show did little more than highlight the obvious lack of spark inside Murrayfield.
Now obviously Scotland have injury issues, a coaching set-up in transition and a pitch that even the local 4th’s would turn their noses up at, however this does not even begin to justify the languid offering served up by Scott Johnson’s side against a fired up England team. There’s one thing you have never been able to accuse Scotland of, and that’s lacking passion. Yet on Saturday the team looked completely shorn of all motivation and thoroughly disinterested for the most part in a match against the auld enemy.
Another display like this in a week and a half’s time against a fired up Italian side will surely condemn Scotland to the 2014 wooden spoon and severely dent the faith of a support who are already lacking in reason to cheer. Unfortunately at this stage I am struggling to see any way that Scotland can turn their fortunes around this year with their interim head coach looking almost as disinterested as his players out on the field.
I now believe that Scotland need to all but write off this years tournament and use it as an opportunity to genuinely build for the future and set a marker down for next year. The reality is that this Scottish side is like a teenager struggling to come to terms with their own identity, there’s lots of things going on but they’re just not quite sure which area to explore first. But like the young teen will soon discover, there’s nothing to be embarrassed by, in fact a lot of what they and Scotland may find over the next year could be exciting for both themselves and everyone around them.
Although they may be missing two of their most exciting attacking talents in Tim Visser and Sean Maitland this Scotland side is still packed with exciting attacking talents that could really set the international stage alight. Unfortunately the team currently seem intent on sticking to their rough and ready approach by attempting to grind teams down and sneak a win with penalties and tries through the forwards.
What Johnson now needs to realise is that Scotland no longer have a pack capable of grinding other teams down; the scrum is not the force it once was whilst the line-out is as close to farcical as any international side dare tread. The lack of passion and commitment by a number of the players also mean they are no longer competing on equal terms at rucks whilst players falling off tackles mean they will continue to concede tries.
It is far from doom and gloom however as I feel there is a core of this team with as much potential as any Scotland side has shown in the last 30 years. In Stuart Hogg they have a player who has all the assets to become a genuine World-beater. Backed up by Visser and Maitland Scotland have three players who are able to score tries from anywhere on the pitch and therefore keep opposition defences on their toes, even when they are in possession.
It’s not just the backs however who possess this attacking threat, in the Gray brothers, Dave Denton and Johnnie Beattie Scotland have forwards who have all the handling skills of the backs whilst still being able to smash through defenders. If I was in Johnson’s shoes I would be looking at this vast array of attacking talent and be thinking about opening up the game plan and allowing these players to do what they do best….score tries.
The benefit of this approach is not only the chance of winning games, rather than attempting to not lose them, but even if Scotland are not winning the fans are more likely to be on their feet cheering if they see their side throwing the ball about and having a go. This is likely to in turn spur the team on to push harder rather than seemingly not giving a damn even against the English.
Now there are a couple of issues that must be addressed before we see a real upturn in form, but should these be adequately addressed I see no reason why Scotland cannot at least match if not better their 3rd place finish in 2013. The key issue is obviously in the tight five (in particular the front row) as Scotland’s set-piece seems to get off the coach before it ever arrives at Murrayfield.
Unfortunately one of Vern Cotter’s first jobs when he takes over is finding an alternative to Ross Ford at hooker. The guy looks like a brute (and should maybe be tried in the back row?) but fails in most of the basic skills associated with being a hooker, namely he can’t hook or throw the ball accurately. If Cotter can find a hooker who is not necessarily a remarkable player, but at least able to regularly perform the basics then Scotland will take one huge leap in the right direction.
In addition a top class tighthead prop would also be of huge benefit just to help stabilise the scrum, although if Cotter can get the game plan right and Scotland get the ball out of the set piece quickly then this is less of an issue. The other absolutely vital position where Scotland are currently lacking a bit of spark is at fly-half.
If I was in the SRU I would currently be doing absolutely everything in my power to get Tom Heathcote signed up at either Edinburgh or Glasgow ahead of next season. With Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson both failing to claim the spot over the last 12 months it now seems time to take a gamble on Heathcote who looks a genuine talent, even if he is currently a little short of game time. Alternatively Cotter could look at bringing Hogg into fly-half although he could take some time to adapt and it may inhibit his ability to run the ball from deep.
Whatever happens though Scotland must now remove the shackles and let their most talented players go out and play to their strengths. If Cotter allows his team to play like this I see absolutely no reason why they cannot be serious contenders for at the very least a top-half finish in next years Six Nations.
Possible Scotland XV for the 2015 Six Nations and beyond;
1. Ryan Grant
4. Jonny Gray
5. Richie Gray
6. Dave Denton
7. Chris Fusaro
8. Johnnie Beattie
9. Greig Laidlaw
10. Tom Heathcote
11. Tim Visser
12. Matt Scott
13. Duncan Taylor
14. Sean Maitland
15. Stuart Hogg
To me, with just a couple of big finds in the next year, looks like a team with bags of talent, particularly when it comes to playing the ball through the hands. A solid pack who are able to switch between integrating into the backline and smashing through opposition defenders whilst a skilful midfield is able to feed the ball out wide to some of the most potent attacking players in the Northern Hemisphere. And let’s not forget, with the installation of a new hybrid pitch at Murrayfield ahead of next year there will be plenty more opportunity to keep the ball in hand rather than grind the opposition down up front.
Frankly Vern Cotter cannot arrive soon enough for Scottish Rugby!