By Ted Lane
With autumn long gone, and the fearsome Southern Hemisphere teams now safely locked on the other side of the equator, it’s time for Scotland to embark on its course for redemption. The RBS 6 Nations is on the horizon and each team is gearing itself up for success. This year’s tournament is wide open and Scotland will look to capitalise after a dismal display last time around.
It has been a bizarre year for Scottish rugby; one that can be more easily likened to an Alton Towers roller coaster than anything else. Euphoric highs followed by disappointing lows have meant no one really knows which Scotland is going to turn up come game day.
At the end of last year’s 6 Nations, Scotland had suffered seven straight losses, stretching back to the
World Cup. It was an appropriately miserable end to a thoroughly dispiriting season for Scotland, who walked away with the wooden spoon, suffering their first whitewash since 2004.
A small renaissance then occurred on their summer tour. Andy Robinson’s men performed heroically in their victory against the Wallabies, Scotland’s first win Down Under in thirty years. Scotland took to the field in an atrocious storm of wind and rain and managed to grind out a 9-6 victory in enemy territory.
A ruinous autumn campaign followed. Defeats to the All Blacks and South Africa, although disappointing, were to be expected. It was the shocking loss to Tonga at Pittodrie which proved the straw that broke the camel’s back. Robinson, despite all his promises of carrying Scotland to bigger and better things, was forced to resign.
Now former attack coach Scott Johnson finds himself at the helm as interim boss. It’s an uninspired choice, and one that threatens little shake up of the previous system, but you only need to look at England’s Stuart Lancaster to realise even as interim Johnson has an opportunity to make a fantastic impact. A mass exodus of players or drastic re-think of the system is not necessarily needed either; Scotland has a talented squad of players and, if Johnson can harness these talents, a springtime shock may be within their grasp.
Major positives in the development of Greig Laidlaw at fly-half and the formation of a frightening back row (Denton, Rennie and Barclay) are all cause for excitement. With young promising individuals like Scott, Hogg, Weir, Welsh and Jones, Scotland could very well compete in the future.
The three key players to Scottish success will be Tim Visser, Richie Gray and David Denton. Visser, more the Flying Dutchman than Scotsman, has made an immediate impact since qualifying for the international stage. His power, pace and clinical nose for the goal line provides Scotland with what it has lacked so much in recent times: tries. Scoring twice against the All Blacks in the autumn, from unfavourable positions, shows a killer instinct Scotland has been without for a long time.
Gray is immense and not just physically. For a second-row forward he is mobile, excellent defensively and good with ball in hand. In him Scotland possess a player who is worthy of being labeled world-class, and who is rightly being tipped for a place in the Lions squad.
Denton, like Gray, is young but still able to make an impact; one only has to think back to a certain clash with the All Blacks at Murrayfield, and more specifically Denton’s head on clash with Richie McCaw. McCaw, one of the most celebrated tacklers in world rugby, was steamrolled by the Scot in such a rare occurrence it warranted its own clip on the hugely popular RugbyDump website. Scotland have always been a physical side, but in Denton they have a line-breaking threat different to the traditional physicality that rolls from ruck to ruck, three feet at a time.
There is no reason to believe that Scotland cannot enter every game this tournament with an air of ‘anything can happen’. Despite their success last year, England are still in a period of transition. Wales, who looked to be well on their way to dominance this side of the equator, crumbled under Argentinian pressure in the autumn. Ireland, humiliated by the All Blacks in the summer, still seem out of sorts. The Italians, improving though they are, must still be seen as a prime target for victory. France are developing into a real threat, but facing them on the final day of the tournament, if previous results have gone Scotland’s way and confidence is high, who knows what could happen?
Despite the excitement of youth and emerging talent the fact remains that Andy Robinson left following a series of poor defeats and chronic underachievement. The optimism of new chief executive Mark Dodson
is now defunct. When addressing the members of the SRU after his appointment he made predictions of 6 Nations Grand Slams and World Cup glory, going against all recent statistics. Scotland have only won two of their last fifteen 6 Nations matches and haven’t progressed beyond the Rugby World Cup quarter finals since 1991.
Hoping for a Grand Slam is madness; those are the Holy Grail and can be decades in the making. It took Ireland a staggering sixty-one years between Grand Slams, after all. Perhaps a better objective would be to improve on their recent record, which stands at either one or no wins in every 6 Nations Championship since 2007. For Scotland to finish the 2013 Championship in third place would mark a significant improvement. Talking about Grand Slams just adds unnecessary pressure.
There is always an air of expectancy at Murrayfield, and this year’s fixture list has been kind, affording Scotland three opportunities to capitalise on home advantage. With the emergence of youth, and talented game winners like Visser, Scotland stands in a fantastic position to bury the demons of 2012. However, 2013 should not be seen as a quick fix.
As hard as it might be to say, taking a leaf from the book of English rugby might be the best idea. Admit that this is a time of transition; it is a time to give younger players the experience that they can carry forward to be a success in the future. With this admission the media pressure will be off and, rather than looking for victories, they will simply be looking for positive signs of progress. If this is the case and the weight of expectation is removed, who knows? A surprise berth in the top half of this year’s table is well within Scotland’s grasp.
Taken from the February issue of Scotcampus, out now