The one statistic which stands out as the most remarkable of all following the second weekend of Six Nations action is this: Scotland top the try-scoring table.
To put this in context, the six tries Scotland have scored in just two games this year is more than the team managed in the whole of last year’s tournament, the same number as the team scored in the whole of the 2011 and twice as many as Scotland’s dismal 2010 effort. Not only that, but all the tries were scored by outside backs. Everyone from 11 to 15 now has at least one which suggests a cutting edge that was never there before.
For years, Scotland have been competitive up front but totally unable to score tries. White-line fever was the complaint and no-one, it seemed knew how to solve it.
It may be, of course, that Scotland will retreat into the bad old days once again and fail to score any more tries in the rest of this year’s competition, but that is unlikely. For one thing, there are now three sublime finishers in the team in Stuart Hogg, Tim Visser and Sean Maitland – as quick and as clinical a back three as Scotland have ever possessed. For another, this year’s games are – generally – more open and fluid than they used to be.
The Ireland England match in Dublin was conducted in constant wind and rain making it difficult for any running rugby. Consequently, both teams closed down soon after the start, preferring to kick constantly for territory and wait for their opponents to make mistakes, which Ireland did more frequently than England. The France Wales match in Paris was a tense and nervous affair with both sides desperate not to concede tries but these two games do not reflect the norm.
The first weekend of the championship, which saw tries and running rugby from all teams, and which was continued at Murrayfield on Saturday, is likely to be closer to the way the rest of the games will be played. But Scotland’s outside backs can only score tries if Scotland win the contact area. Scotland lost that against England but won it comprehensively against Italy. If Greig Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson get swift, front-foot ball than they – and the rest of the backs – can manufacture chances against anybody.
So that is, once again, the key against Ireland a week on Sunday.
The Irish have perfected the choke tackle, which keeps the tackled player on his feet, starts a maul and often hands over possession to the defending team.
Scotland have to find a way of combating that and releasing quick ball for their backs, which they have had trouble doing against Ireland in recent years. They also have to match the efforts of the Irish back row – the best back-row unit in the tournament and, possibly, the three most likely first-choice Lions as things stand at the moment. And they have to counter the Irish midfield, the most experienced in the tournament.
But rugby is, at heart, a simple game. If Scotland can knock the Irish back in the tackle and win the subsequent battle for possession enough times, then this is a match they could – and should – win. Lose the contact area, though, and the match will go with it.
I was one of many to call for Stuart Hogg to be moved to 13. However, given the way he has played at 15 for the last two games, that is unlikely to happen. I still believe he might do even better closer to the ball where his ability to beat an opponent, one on one, and his soft hands, might open up more chances for the wingers, but his clearing boot and sumptuous ability to counter attack from full back will put that move on hold for a long time, possibly ever.
It does still leave Scotland with a slight problem at 13, though. Sean Lamont tackled well on Saturday, as he always does, but he was lucky with his try. There are many referees who would have called Lamont back for kicking a ball away from a ruck and penalised him, rather than allow him to canter the length of the pitch for his try. The ball still seemed to be under the hand of the Italian player and had not been touched by the scrum half when Lamont kicked it clear. But with Jo Ansbro and Nick de Luca injured, Ben Cairns not back to the form of several years ago and neither of the young Glasgow centres quite ready yet, Lamont looks like he will stay at outside centre for the campaign.
This may be no bad thing in shackling the ever dangerous Brian O’Driscoll a week on Sunday but Scotland’s scorching back three will only be able to convert chances if they get good ball and Lamont has to prove he can do that.
Incidentally, Jackson’s delayed pass, dummy and one-handed flick which set Visser on the way to his try was as good as the O’Driscoll move which sent Simon Zebo clear a week earlier against Wales and which already had some scribes pencilling O’Driscoll in as Lions captain on the strength of that move alone.
Another plus from Saturday is that the Scottish pack looks more forceful and balanced than it did against England and Rob Harley was immense against the Italians. However, a genuine openside – John Barclay is now fit again and Chris Fusaro is waiting off stage – might make that crucial difference to the breakdown against better teams than Italy.
So, it’s won-one lost-one for Scotland who look like they have lost to the best team in the championship away from home and beaten the worst one at home. It is not the basis for any claims for Scotland to be potential contenders. The real test will come in the next two games, against Ireland and Wales. One victory will represent encouraging progress but two victories would mark a genuine turnaround.
It all hinges on the next two and half weeks.
As for potential Lions to watch: Hogg again underlined his soaring reputation and, at the moment, has to be one of the two full backs who will travel to Australia. Other Scots to edge towards the plane were Richie Gray, Kelly Brown, Sean Maitland, Greig Laidlaw and the vastly underrated Matt Scott. Visser did himself no harm with his well-taken try on Saturday but has to score more over the next few games and put in two ferocious defensive displays too – as that is perceived as his weakness.
But all those hopes could fall to dust if Scotland crash against their Celtic rivals in the next two matches.
If that happens, that golden period against Italy will seem very far away indeed as will indeed much Scottish representation on that glamorous Lions tour to Australia in June.