(Picture from Facebook)
Even the most myopic Scottish rugby supporter must have looked at the Ireland v All Blacks game last Sunday and sighed with longing.
It wasn’t just that Ireland came close to winning (indeed they could, and perhaps should have won), it wasn’t that the Irish scored three tries in the first 19 minutes and had New Zealand on the rack, it was that they played with such passion and controlled ferocity that they all but blew the Kiwis off the park.
Now compare that the dull fare served up by Scotland at Murrayfield 24 hours earlier. Scotland played reasonably well in patches but everything was controlled and organised and not in the least bit ferocious. For the last 20 minutes of the game, Scotland were only six points down. A converted try would have won the game. Indeed, the Australians kept giving Scotland lifelines but failing to knock over routine kicks at all that would put the Wallabies out of sight. Even half the energy, passion and controlled aggression that Ireland showed would have won Scotland the game.
There was a crucial point in the last five minutes. Scotland were still within a converted score of winning, they had a lineout within ten metres of the Aussie line, a catch, drive and maul could have brought a try and what happened? The lineout was lost, the ball was turned over and the game was over. So it is not just a lack of passion and ferocity, it is also a failure to be clinical when needed that was the problem.
The classic example of this failing came just before half time when Johnnie Beattie broke up the centre, passed to Sean Maitland who beat the penultimate defender and passed left to Sean Lamont, who was in the clear with the line in sight. All three passes were a shade offline and the receivers had to check to receive the ball, letting the defence come across, smother Lamont and the chance was lost.
There is an argument to say that had Visser been on that wing – as he should have been had he not been injured – he would have completed the score. He is not only the best finisher in Scottish rugby, he is one of the fastest too. But what that simply exposes is a lack of depth in Scottish rugby. Lamont was there because he was considered the next best option for Visser and while there is no doubt Lamont gives everything he has to the Scotland cause every time he pulls on the shirt, he is not the fastest flyer, best finisher or sharpest winger the team has ever had and would probably struggle to get into any other Six Nations team.
That brings us to the other players used by Scott Johnson this autumn.
Duncan Taylor of Saracens came in for Matt Scott at 12 and simply reminded us how good Scott is. Taylor had an appalling game against the Springboks. He was easily beaten for one of the South African tries and booted the ball out on the full on one of the only occasions in attack when Scotland had an overlap. Nick de Luca was his usual patchy self at 13, great against Japan and average against the better teams.
There was also no clear consensus to emerge over the crucial position of fly half. Ruaridhe Jackson was reasonably good for the first two games, without dominating while Duncan Weir failed to really excel in the final game against the Wallabies. There is a similar problem at scrum half. Greig Laidlaw’s undoubted rugby nous is valuable but Chris Cusiter gets the ball away quicker, is more urgent in ripping the ball out of the breakdown and fires is away with a harder, flatter pass than his rival and that is crucial in giving the backs the time they need to attack.
It is perhaps a shame that Johnson failed to experiment more, given that there was little more than pride resting on these games. For example, it would have been good to see how the exciting young Mark Bennett from Glasgow responds to international rugby. He would appear to be the best long-term bet for the 13 shirt and could even fill it at the World Cup but, to do that, he needs time to bed in. Greig Tonks can also count himself unlucky not to get a run at 15, at least against Japan.
But, as Johnson has said, there will be no experimenting when it comes to the Six Nations and, on the basis of the autumn games, we can expect him to pick something along the following lines for that first game against Ireland on Sunday 2nd February 2014 – injuries permitting of course: Grant, Ford, Low (no Euan Murray as the match is on a Sunday), Swinson, Hamilton, Strokosch, Brown (c), Denton, Laidlaw, Jackson, Lamont, Scott, De Luca, Maitland, Hogg.
Johnson does seem wedded to having Kelly Brown as his captain and, as such, playing him at seven. However, it would be good to see Ross Rennie back at seven for Scotland (he starts back for Edinburgh after injury this week). Richie Gray may have recovered enough form to get back into the starting line-up be then – let’s hope so because, although Jim Hamilton adds grunt to the pack, he is still a liability in the loose.
In that case, a better team for the Ireland match may be: Grant, Ford, Low, Gray, Swinson, Harley, Rennie, Denton, Cusiter (c), Weir, Hogg, Scott, Bennett, Maitland, Lamont.
That would give the two young centres the chance to see if they can work up the sort of understanding that could serve Scotland well for years and give a proper balance to the back row.
It does favour Glasgow players but they have shown so much more this year than any others, they deserve the recognition.
The only really depressing downside is the continuing absence of Visser. Just when Scotland got themselves their best left wing in years, he goes out with a broken leg.
With either of these two sides mentioned above (but particularly the first one, which seems depressingly one-paced and lacking in turnover specialists) Scotland may well find themselves desperately in need of his finishing in what will be another tight Six Nations.