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England

Saturday
The conclusion to 2013 Six Nations Championship was one to remember as WRU Logo Chamions 2013Wales beat England handsomely to land the title, and deny Stuart Lancaster’s team a Grand Slam. It was one of those games that made you smile, not just because of the manner in which the Welsh won, but because so many experts called it so completely wrong.

The word ‘narrow’, or the phrase ‘just a few points’ were regularly used when it came to predicting what might separate these sides at the end of 80 minutes. The 27-point winning margin the Welsh achieved kicked all predictions in to touch.

“England’s bubble has been burst,” said World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward. And he would know. For there was a man who regularly had his balloon pricked as he went for titles and Slams while in charge of England. In 1999 it was Scott Gibbs who did the damage at Wembley, while a year later in the rain at Murrayfield, Andy Nicol led the Scots to a memorable, if unexpected, Calcutta Cup win, so denying England the Grand Slam. In 2001, with the competition fragmented by foot and mouth, England fell at the final hurdle again when confronted by Ireland, and the following term, while it wasn’t in the final game, France halted English title ambitions. Sir Chris HoyWoodward came good in 2003, delivering the World Cup. So, Stuart Lancaster, that’s how you overcome disappointment.

Down Under, the F1 season starts in Melbourne, albeit a damp one which means that final qualifying isn’t completed until the morning of the race. As part of the big day, a bunch celebrities raced around the Albert Park circuit in Mazda 6’s, amongst them Olympic legend Sir Chris Hoy, who managed to finish second in his race, but only after knocking the corners off his car during practice. The phrase ‘one careful owner’ doesn’t apply to these cars, especially the one in Frame 3!

Sunday
Seldom on March 17, is St Patrick ever overshadowed by another saint. But today it’s St Mirren’s day as they beat Hearts 3-2 to take the Scottish League Cup, the club’s first major trophy since 1987.

St Mirren LogoWe’ve all known for sometime that the Cup competitions present the best opportunity for clubs outside Glasgow’s big two, to collect some silverware. St Mirren’s success at Hampden meant that six different clubs have won the last six domestic knockout tournaments. So it can be done. It would just be nice, in the case of the league Cup, if some teams – and some fans – took it a bit more seriously at an earlier stage.

Monday
Any poll, survey, chart or Top 10, 20 or 100 is likely to cause disagreement of one sort or another. The Herald, in what is a quiet week leading up to an unimportant World Cup qualifier against Wales, decide to reveal their 50 Greatest Scottish Footballers.

Davie CooperOn day one, ‘the humble jury of Herald journalists’ create a bit of a stooshie by naming Davie Cooper at No.48, three places behind Pat Stanton. Whether this was an attention-grabbing ploy, or an attention-deficit disorder, I’m not sure. Personally, I wouldn’t have had Stanton on the same page as Cooper, let alone ahead of him. But again, football is about opinions, and they cover themselves by claiming the criteria for inclusion must necessarily be vague.

Interestingly, they quote the great Bob Cramspey. “Once players reach a certain level an appreciation of their relative worth is subjective.” Crampsey, who I sat with for many an hour as he compiled his ‘Ask Bob’ column for the Evening Times, also reckoned Cooper was one of the few players who would be considered watchable by any generation. Which, I think, would be enough alone to see him better than 48th by any standard …

Tuesday
Having already sacked Steve Kean in September and Henning Berg in December, Championship side Blackburn Rovers axe manager Michael Appleton after 15 games and just 67 days at Ewood Park. It would appear every manager Blackburn employs is of the interim variety. Either that, they’ve signed up to one of those day-to-day rolling contracts …

Wednesday
I wake up to find one of the tabloids proclaiming that a movie is to be made about Celtic founder Brother Walfrid with none other than Daniel Day Lewis in the starring role.

Brother Wilfrid StatueOf course, when it comes to Scottish football at the movies, nothing, not even Greegory’s Girl, can come close to A Shot At Glory, which starred Holywood great Robert Duvall and the legend that is Ally McCoist. The BBC’s Rob Maclean concurred, suggesting the movie even had a cult following. I’m sure that’s what he tweeted.

Whether Brother Walfrid’s tale, about how he set up a sporting club to help poor families in the East End of Glasgow (or the Kelly’s and White’s as they were better known), ever reaches the production stage, it is unlikely to be as bewilderingly surreal as the making of A Shot At Glory, and the sideshow that was Scottish football’s lesser lights being drawn towards the bright lights.

There are certain things you see in life that make you blink twice and look again. Seeing wee Bob Duvall at the Scottish Football Writers Association’s annual dinner in the company of former Airdrie assistant manager John McVeigh was one such moment, as was witnessing Batman (Michael Keating) at Boghead, or Hermann Goring (Brian Cox) at Rugby Park. As my now-deceased former Evening Times colleague Alan Davidson made mention, “this travelling circus might be more entertaining than the movie itself.” Who am I to argue …

Thursday
Pietro MenneaSad news today that Italy’s former 200m world record holder and Olympic champion Pietro Mennea has died, aged 60.

At the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Mennea denied Scotland’s Alan Wells a golden sprint double. Talking to Wells about that race, he once told me; “He (Mennea) was capable of anything. You were never sure what he was going to do. Sometimes, I don’t think he did either.”

It is a measure of Mennea’s ability that in 1979, he set a then-world best over the distance in Mexico, a mark still not bettered by a European athlete. Indeed, it took 17 years before his time of 19.72 secs was beaten by Michael Johnson at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Johnson’s record since bettered by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt.

Farewell to a true sprint great!

Friday
The Craig Levein Effect is still alive and kicking. Still adverts being fired around on social media telling us tickets are still available for tonight’s World Cup qualifier at Hampden against Wales. And to think the lengths people went to just to get briefs for Anfield in 1977 or Cardiff eight years later.

According to former Wales star Mickey Thomas, this is the worst Scottish team ever. Thanks for that Mickey. Yes, Scotland might not be enjoying the qualifying successes achieved a couple of decades ago. But when did Wales last qualify for a World Cup or European Championship finals tournament? Not even in my living memory. You need to go back to 1958 to find a World Cup finals event that featured Wales, a nation that invented the Eisteddfod just so they could win it.

Stuart Hogg in action against Italy

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.

Scotland’s biennial visit to Twickenham ended in defeat yet again yesterday, this time with a convincing 20-point margin in favour of the home side.

Even though Scotland briefly took the lead early in the first half, they were really never in this as a contest and the 38-18 final score could have been a whole lot worse. But it would be wrong, very wrong, to indulge in the usual recriminations about how bad Scotland were because this as not about Scotland being bad: this was about England being good, very good.

There had been mutterings beforehand about the All Blacks being tired and ill when they were beaten by a rampant England team in November. But England were superb that day and they showed they have carried that power, precision and pace into the Six Nations.

Scotland played well – better indeed than they did in the whole of last season’s Six Nations – but were simply blown away by what is turning into a very good England team.

In the past, England may have relied on a few superstars, a good kicker and a handful of bullies to get the job done: nor any more. It is really difficult to pick out individuals from yesterday’s England performance because they played like a team – something they haven’t done for years, and that’s worrying for their opponents. This is a team built in coach Stuart Lancaster’s image: tough, unshowy, hard-working and efficient. Every single player in the England team had the ability to get over the gain line on first phase possession and they are building a good offloading game into their bash-em and drive them style which makes it very hard to defend against.

Scotland did do some things wrong. Scott Johnson, Scotland’s coach, was right to identify the break-down as the place where Scotland lost the game and England dominated the contact area. Scotland need to improve there before hosting Italy next week. Ruaridh Jackson had a mixed game at fly half. He missed one penalty to touch which ultimately led to an England try and had a kick charged down which led to another but his tight passing was excellent and he tackled his heart out. It would be hard for him to be replaced for the Italian game because he will get more time on the ball in that one so should be able to control matters a little more.

But his number ten shirt could easily be handed to Duncan Weir ahead of next week if Scotland want to control the territory better than they managed at Twickenham.

The real Scottish plus yesterday was the virtuoso performance from Stuart Hogg. It could be argued that Hogg was the best player on the pitch, not just the best Scot but the suspicion remains that Scotland could get even more out of him at outside centre, rather than an full back. Hogg is a great tackler, has a tremendous boot on him and can counter attack like no-one else – which does make him a great fullback – but he is also a fabulously elusive runner with soft hands – and Scotland have real problems in the centres.

There is no point having speedy wingers if they never see the ball and, with Sean Lamont at 13, that is what happens. How often did Lamont actually receive the ball and pass it on the wingers? I can’t remember it happening once.

The solution is to bring Hogg up to 13 that would give him time to develop a great partnership with the ever improving Matt Scott at 12, both of them are young and could become one of Scotland’s best combinations in midfield. Tim Visser and Sean Maitland should stay on the wings but Grieg Tonks should be brought in at full back. The Edinburgh number 15 was one of the stand-out performers in Scotland A’s fantastic win over the England Saxons on Friday night. Tonks was magnificent under the high ball, he made a number of searing breaks from the back and kicked long and safely to clear his lines. Tonks was harshly overlooked for the full Scotland squad before the England game because of Edinburgh’s poor domestic form but he showed on Friday quite how good he is. Johnson should bring him in immediately.

Steven Lawrie at hooker was another to impress on Friday night, as was Glasgow number eight Ryan Wilson, both of whom deserve promotion to the full squad, but probably only as far as the bench.
There should also be a change in the second row where Jim Hamilton has to be dropped. He was brought in for his bulk but he simply can’t cope with the speed that the Six Nations is played at in the loose these days and he was vulnerable in the lineout.

Al Kellock, who has been playing superbly all season, should return and Johnson has to go for an out-an-out seven in the back row.

Given that Scotland were beaten at the breakdown yesterday, they need a proper breakaway and, if Ross Rennie and John Barclay are both still injured next week then he has to call up Chris Fusaro from Glasgow or Roddy Grant from Edinburgh.

Other than that, Scotland played as well as was possible against an England team that has at last begun to show it is a sum of its parts, with all players coming on to the ball at pace, clearing out rucks and having the confidence to off load.

So the team to play Italy at Murrayfield should be: 1. Ryan Grant, 2. Ross Ford, 3. Ewan Murray, 4, Richie Gray, 5. Al Kellock, 6, Kelly Brown, 7. Chris Fusaro. 8. Johnnie Beattie. 9. Greig Laidlaw. 10. Duncan Weir. 11. Tim Visser. 12. Matt Scott. 13. Stuart Hogg. 14. Sean Maitland. 15. Greig Tonks. Subs: Jon Welsh. Steven Lawrie. Moray Low. Grant Gilchrist. Ryan Wilson. Sean Kennedy. Ruaridh Jackson. Max Evans.

But Johnson will probably stick with the same bunch that took the field at Twickenham yesterday, probably with just Denton coming in for the injured Al Strokosch – which would be both a shame and a mistake.

Lions watch: those who enhanced their Lions credentials yesterday – pretty much the whole of the England team particularly Ben Youngs, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, Owen Farrell and Billy Twelvetrees. For Scotland, only Stuart Hogg and possibly Richie Gray and Johnnie Beattie made an impression with Hogg the only one to really catch the eye.

Henman Hill, Murray Mound, Murray Park – or somewhere Picture: Rod Allday

Saturday
The early 80s were a special time in Scottish football. The New Firm of Aberdeen and Dundee United didn’t need enforced relegation or liquidation to break up the Old Firm.

They were on a high domestically and in Europe, and at international level we were World Cup regulars. We’ll be pushed to see anything like it again.

We probably punched above our weight. But knocking people out while much smaller than even us were Northern Ireland.

They qualified out of our group to go to Spain in 1982 where they out-performed the Scots by reaching the second phase, and in 1986 they headed out to Mexico having finished group runners-up to England.

You had to admire them, given their resources and the fact untold damage was being done to the fabric of their society by dregs of that same society.

Their team was full of heroes, from Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong, to Billy Hamilton and Norman Whiteside. Amongst them was one Alan McDonald, the young QPR stopper.

Sad news then on Saturday that, at just 48, McDonald – a title-winning manager while at Glentoran in 2009 – had died while out playing golf.

If he is remembered for any one thing it should be his post-match interview after that 1985 draw at Wembley, which is featured in this tribute from BBC Northern Ireland

In these days of clichés, clones and those who toe the party and corporate line, it will for evermore be refreshing to hear a footballer tell it the way he sees it.

Sunday
Remember the relief throughout England that they had avoided Spain in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012?

I alluded to it last week and mentioned that they could still play the defending champions, if they beat (probably) Germany in the semis, but only if they first dealt with Italy.

Something they failed to do, although they did take the contest all the way to penalties – thus prolonging the agony by an extra hour at least.

No, not the extra time and the penalty misses. Oh no. The having to listen to Mark Lawrenson prattle on, trying to crack unfunny one-liners and making observations more akin to those of a primary schoolboy.

License payers’ money well spent …

Monday
And it’s announced that a criminal investigation is to be launched into Craig Whyte’s takeover of Rangers Football Club in May last year.

A Crown Office spokesman said: “The procurator fiscal for the west of Scotland will now work with Strathclyde Police to fully investigate the acquisition and financial management of Rangers Football Club and any related reports of alleged criminality during that process.”

And what about before that process?

Tuesday
Wimbledon is well under way and today is the day the great British hope starts his quest to be the first home champion since polo shirt manufacturer Fred Perry.

Will this be Andy Murray’s year, or is he destined to be Scottish again before the end of the second week?

The big debate is what to call that lump of earth, which has become “Murray Mound” having previously started out life as “Henman Hill”.

I do prefer the latter. After all, there should be something to commemorate Henman’s efforts at Wimbledon given he never got his name on the champions’ board …

Wednesday
The first of the Euro 2012 semi-finals takes place with Spain, the holders, facing Portugal. Too much at stake perhaps and the contest fizzles out into a goal-less draw. Penalties!

And that is where it all unravelled for the Portuguese.

Their plan – and they admitted they had one afterwards – was to leave talisman skipper Cristiano Ronaldo to take the fifth and final spot-kick.

Unfortunately Bruno Alves smashed the crossbar with his effort allowing Spain substitute Cesc Fabregas to ping home the winner in-off the post.

So Ronaldo stood around idle, denied his moment. Me, I’d have had him taking one of the first few. A banker. I think I said that right …

The excuse later was that Ronaldo was down to take the crucial final shot, when all the expectation and pressure was on the taker – and not the crucial final shot, when all the eyes of the world and the spotlight was on the taker.

Sorry, but I just don’t buy the latter …

Thursday
Police investigations, player walkouts (or walkaways, to be more accurate), ownership challenges and fan demonstrations are the precursors to the first day’s training back at Murray Park for Rangers beleaguered squad of players, totalling an unlucky 13 on their first day of the new term.

Shambolic as it looked, it was only a sidebar on the near-pathetic events unfolding in Glasgow when the new Rangers were being forced upon unsuspecting and unwanting First Division Scottish League clubs.

The reason was simple. The SPL chairman had cooked up the excuse that Rangers had to go (but not too far) because their clubs faced a boycott from their own fans if the Ibrox outfit (or what is left of it) hung around in the top tier.

So the decision was made fire Rangers all the way down one league (thus giving them the best possible chance of a speedy return in a season) – and sod those First Division clubs whose fans were equally upset by the arrival of Rangers and threatened a similar revolt.

A shambolic outcome. But then, this is what you get when you try to juggle “sporting integrity” with financial needs. Think of it like throwing a jug of napalm up with one hand, and a lit firework in the other – with moral-fibre toast the likeliest outcome …

Friday
We’ve known all along. But a day after it emerged that David Beckham wasn’t in Stuart Pearce’s Team GB, so word filters out there will be no Scots players in the men’s British Olympic football squad when it is announced on Monday.

All the way through, the SFA had maintained a stance of not supporting the national cause in case they lost their independent national identity. Which I suppose makes a change from just losing.

That was their excuse, and they stuck to it. Or was it just a hugely calculated piece of spin-doctoring because they knew no Scots were ever going to be among the first 18 available players from these shores?

Or 19, if you include Beckham …

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments.

Matt Scott makes a break against Australia at Newcastle Picture: SRU

“Make sure there are no rocks under your beach towel,” was the message that Scott Johnson, Scotland’s new attack coach, gave the players before their game with Samoa at the weekend.

What Johnson, an Aussie, meant was this – don’t go off on holiday with something bugging you, something making you uncomfortable, something that’s ruining your beach holiday.

With the final victory of their southern hemisphere tour secured, the Scottish players can now go off on holiday with no unfinished business, nothing uncomfortable in the back of their minds – nothing, indeed, to ruin their well-earned relaxation because they have done what they set out to do.

They have just come through a difficult and gruelling set of matches, played in arduous conditions, and won them all. There really should be no rocks under their beach towels for the rest of the summer.

It isn’t the same for the rest of the northern hemisphere, though. Ireland, for instance, played three and lost three. It was the same for Wales – played three and lost three – while England did marginally better (but not much), playing three, losing two and drawing one.

Compared with their Six Nations counterparts, Scotland’s record of played three, won three looks extremely creditable.
Critics will point out that the comparison is not a fair one and they would be right. It is hard to see Scotland coming close to New Zealand, particularly in the awesome form they showed when dismantling Ireland 60–0 on Saturday.
Scotland would also have struggled against South Africa and almost certainly against Australia in the warm sunshine of Sydney rather than the monsoon of Newcastle, which is where Scotland ambushed them on the first game of the tour earlier this month.

But there are two important factors to consider: first, you can only play what’s in front of you. Scotland faced three tests away from home in vividly contrasting conditions, the first game played in a deluge and the last two played in sweltering tropical heat – and they won them all.

Secondly, Scotland’s itinerary was daunting. It may not have been as hard as the schedule faced by Wales, Ireland or even England, but it was difficult. They played Australia away from home and won, something they hadn’t done for 30 years.

The respected rugby writer Allan Massie, for instance, said it would be “miracle” for Scotland to win all three games, and there were many observers who feared that Scotland would return without a single win.

Make no mistake, this was a very difficult tour and to win three out of three is highly laudable.

Many Scotland fans have bemoaned the fact that coach Andy Robinson seems to be able to inspire wins when it doesn’t really matter, but he has a dismal record in real competitions.

That is true and it is something the team need to sort out, but Scotland are in a much better place now than they were at the end of the Six Nations.

So what have we learned from this successful tour?

1 – Scotland’s scrum is good again. The setpiece was magnificent all tour. The way the tight eight destroyed the Aussie scrum in the first game to earn the last-ditch penalty and win the game was fabulous, but it carried on against Fiji, when the Scottish forwards won a penalty try by driving the Fijians back over their own line and they then achieved parity with the immense Samoan forwards too.

2 – We have a number of good props now. Having left Allan Jacobsen at home, it was a chance for Glasgow’s Ryan Grant to show what he could do and he was fantastic. With Euan Murray displacing Geoff Cross on the tighthead and returning to the form that made him a Lion in 2009, the front-row options are now better than they have been for years.

3 – Ross Rennie is a very classy openside flanker. We thought John Barclay would hold on to the seven shirt for years, but he will have trouble ousting the excellent Rennie now. Rennie’s tackle count was superb but it was his linking work with the backs and the work he put in at the breakdown that really marked him out. He is getting better and better.

4 – We still don’t know who our best scrum-half is. Oddly, both Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter seemed to perform best when they came on as substitutes, upping the pace and making an impact while neither was at his best when starting a game. Blair’s box kicks were often misplaced, but his running into space and releasing of players (particularly his run and pass which released Rob Harley for the last-minute try against Samoa) were excellent.
Cusiter’s pass from the base and harrying of opponents is better than Blair’s – but again, he didn’t look so good when starting – as he did against Samoa.

5 – Greig Laidlaw is improving as a number ten but still doesn’t quite look the real deal. Laidlaw looks more composed with every game and he releases his backs reasonably well now. Unfortunately he can’t kick from hand to touch with authority or distance, but he does take the ball flat and vary the game well. He has been pretty much exemplary from the tee, though, without which Scotland could have lost two of the three games on tour.

6 – Scotland have a try-scorer or proven ability now. Everyone was waiting for Tim Visser’s arrival as a Scotland player and the Celtic league’s top scorer for the past three seasons didn’t disappoint, grabbing two tries in his first game against Fiji. Samoa, though, did their homework and closed him down from the start – something he will have to get used to. Also, he looked a little at sea defensively and against the high ball, qualities he will have to improve on if he is to really become the answer to Scotland’s problems. What is interesting, though, is to see how many of Visser’s tries come when Nick de Luca is at outside centre. It may be worth Robinson keeping De Luca at 13 with Visser at 11 because the two have developed such a great understanding at club level.

7 – Scotland now have youngsters who should be able to match anything in the Six Nations. Matt Scott at inside centre really grew as a rugby player on this tour, particularly against Samoa where his break in the first half set up the try for Joe Ansbro. Stuart Hogg was increasingly solid at full-back, even though the sneaking suspicion remains that his best position is at outside centre. Are we in danger of doing another Chris Paterson with the best young Borderer to emerge since Paterson? Playing him at the back because there is a gap there, not where he should be playing?

8 – There were other lessons, too, for the Scotland management and not all of them from this tour. At the under-20 world championships, centre Mark Bennett again showed why he is the best passing and handling back to emerge from Scotland in years and he should be fast-tracked into the main Scotland set-up. Wing Jamie Farndale, who was playing for Edinburgh Academy just a year ago, was the top scorer in the competition and should – hopefully – get some games for Edinburgh this season to see if he can thrive in a more difficult environment.

As the tour finishes, it seems as if Robinson’s First XV for the autumn tests will look someting like this: Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Richie Gray, Al Kellock, Kelly Brown, Ross Rennie, Dave Denton, Mike Blair, Greig Laidlaw, Tim Visser, Matt Scott, Nick de Luca, Max Evans, Stuart Hogg.

If he was more adventurous and had more of an eye for the future, Robinson might try this exciting formation: Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Richie Gray, Al Kellock, Dave Denton, Ross Rennie, Ryan Wilson, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Weir, Tim Visser, Mark Bennett, Stuart Hogg, Max Evans, Grieg Tonks.

Either way, there is hope and even expectation now, which is no bad thing – both have been absent for quite a while.

Picture: Tessa Carroll

England comfortably won the first Testagainst the West Indies on Monday afternoon, a predictable outcome given the relative strengths of the respective teams. Or maybe that should be weaknesses in the case of the tourists.

Things ain’t what they used to be for the Windies. Ordinary, average, sub-standard. They have been for some while now, disappointing for me given that they have always been my team.

When it came to Caribbean cricket, I handsomely failed Norman Tebbit’s test. Not because I was anti-English. I was always anti-dull.

And during the 70s, and 80s, none were as colourful as the West Indies.

The World Cup final in 1975 sold me on the calypso cavaliers, Clive Lloyd’s brilliant batting, Viv Richards’ fielding, the steel drums and carnival followers.

But it was the 1976 Test series in England that turned a liking into a love.

I recall all of it as if it were yesterday, for a great many reasons: I left school, started work, had several girlfriends who lasted more than a weekend, and the summer was endless.

And if at Wimbledon everyone else played tennis while Björn Borg played something else, it was the same on the Test venues of England.

The West Indies arrived with their collective tails between their legs, having been thrashed over the winter by Australia. Maybe it was that hammering that made England skipper Tony Greig so cocksure that he could “make them grovel”.

And for two Tests, England competed. At Trent Bridge, Richards plundered 232, but the home side showed some guts in holding out for a draw, David Steele’s 106 in the first innings earning him the same in pork chops – his sponsorship from a local butcher – and justifying his status as the reigning BBC Sports Personality of the Year (awarded for some backbone and a stiff upper lip against the Aussies the previous summer).

The Lord’s Test petered out as a draw as well, the five-rubber series effectively becoming a best-of-three.

For the first time the West Indies were at full strength, with the respective absentees from Trent Bridge and Lord’s – Michael Holding and Richards – giving Clive Lloyd a full arsenal of firepower with bat and ball.

But in the opening exchanges at Manchester, with Middlesex bowler Mike Selvey making his mark, England gave themselves every chance when limiting the visitors to 200-odd, a total which owed everything to centurion Gordon Greenidge.

Now was the chance for Greig’s “Dad’s Army” to show their worth. Instead, it was a cheap capitulation.

Openers Brian Close – selected way past his best – and John Edrich went cheaply. Then the returning Frank Hayes, on his own patch, failed as he fended off a lifter from Andy Roberts.

Roberts was quick, but had the great ability to bowl a “throat ball” (as Richie Benaud described it), meaning the batsmen invariably had to play it. Whether he was trying to remove your off stump or an ear, Roberts’ facial expression never changed.

Steele top-scored with just 20 (one more than Mr Extras), while Holding took five-for as England were skittled for just 71 – or one-under par as one commentator quipped, given that the Open was also on that weekend.

What was becoming evident in that long, hot, record-breaking summer was that as the pitches got harder, so the West Indies scored and bowled faster.

Greenidge was again to the fore, the first player ever to score hundreds in both innings of an Old Trafford Test, ably accompanied by Richards, the destructive master-blaster with 135.

Over the space of a three days England had gone from having the West Indies 26 for 4 on the first day to needing 552 to win on the Saturday evening.

What then followed was arguably the most hostile, brutal, inflammatory and potentially lethal spell of pace bowling seen since the days of Bodyline. It wasn’t cricket; this was what would become known as the “Coconut Shy”.

While Roberts and Wayne Daniel pinned down Edrich at one end, Holding lived up to his “Whispering Death” tag, peppering Close with short-pitched stuff, hitting him several times on the body. A couple of bouncers – speared at the unhelmeted, bald head – came close to decapitating the veteran all-rounder who had made his Test debut in 1949.

Close over-played his part of the gritty Yorkshireman, not willing to show he’d been hurt, until he was bent by a half-tracker which caught him under the ribs.

Holding was officially warned by umpire Bill Alley, but the damage had been done, and the doubt had set in.

Rain arrived momentarily on the Monday, but it was neither enough to end the drought or to stop the West Indies going one up.

The series was decided at Headingley. I was on our family holiday, trying to overcome a lost love (as you do aged 16) in Bridlington. There was a half-suggestion that we might spare our skins from further punishment and visit York or Leeds.

I naturally extolled the virtues of Leeds, for sights and superb shops. I might even be able to sneak to the Test match. In the end the vote was to stay on the beach …

England too must have wished they were on their holidays. The West Indies clattered 450 runs in a day, openers Roy Fredericks and Greenidge smashing 149 before lunch on day one, both making centuries (for Greenidge this made it three successive Test tons), although that was matched by Greig and wicket-keeper Alan Knott.

The returning Bob Willis – part of England’s strategy to fight pace with pace – grabbed five second-innings wickets to give England every chance of squaring the series with 260 needed in the fourth knock.

But the battery of Roberts, Holding, Daniel and Vanburn Holder again proved clinical, and the West Indies danced with delight when Willis was trapped leg-before by Holding’s full-toss to take the match and series.

So it was on to the Oval, for what was a dead rubber. But no one told the West Indies that. If there was any grovelling to be done, it was going to come from South African-born and raised Greig.

The square in south London looked like an oasis of green in a desert, the outfield parched and white through the water shortage. If England’s suffering wasn’t bad enough, given back-to-back losses, someone had decided to use the full playing surface.

Viv Richards took full advantage of that generosity and a flat track, visiting all parts as he made a majestic 291 and the West Indies posted 687 for 8.

But England had made changes, one being the inclusion of recalled Warwickshire opener Dennis Amiss (he and ’keeper Alan Knott were the only Englishmen not asked to bowl in the first innings), and in reply Amiss was another to make a double-hundred.

England fell short of the follow-on target, in large due to the tireless Holding. On a pitch offering nothing but runs, he relied on his pace to take eight wickets in the first innings.

After Fredericks and Greenidge crashed an unbroken 182 in just 32 overs, Holding set about his task again, taking six more English wickets second time around to end with a match-winning analysis of 14 for 149.

Half of Holding’s wickets in the series came in that one match, he and Roberts taking 28 apiece. If they were inseparable, then IVA Richards stood alone as a run-maker, 829 in just seven innings, two double-tons, a century and two 50s, all at an average of 118.42.

And the summer ended. Red Stripe had never been as popular in the UK, Richards would stay high-profile in England with Somerset, and Greig had been made to eat his words.

There was even a song penned, to the tune of Who’s Sorry Now?, with particular resonance in the line “Greig you’re a loser now”. Something that wouldn’t really worry the West Indies over the next decade and more.

We don’t get summers like that any more. Or West Indies teams.

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments.

Friederich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche: Author of 'Beyond good and evil and the flat back four'

Roy Hodgson has taken the job that will be the basis for the next Mission: Impossible film. Here are five reasons why the poor sod should just resign as England manager right now.

Friedrich Nietzsche
It is a little-known fact that the German philosopher was the preeminent football writer of the 19th century. In The gay science he made his famous but oft-misquoted statement “Ball is dead” in a wide-ranging argument about free kick technique. And Offside sprach Zarathustra is a must-read for any student of the game. But it is in Beyond good and evil and the flat back four that he identifies Roy Hodgson’s main problem. The mass of humanity are incapable of fulfilment. They pin their hopes on extraordinary individuals to deliver them and grant them joy. But these “supermen” cannot achieve this as the task is impossible. The mass then turn on and “crucify” those they placed their faith in. I don’t know if that holds true for history but it certainly charts the trajectory of England managers. This England job further fits with Nietzsche’s idea of “eternal recurrence”.

He’s used up all his luck already
In 1992, Hodgson managed Switzerland’s national team. They were drawn against Scotland in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup. Followers of the game north of the Border will not have been surprised by the Swiss victory. But Hodgson’s team received help from the hand of fate – and the mitts of Richard Gough. The central defender was startled when the ball bounced in the air – as balls are wont to do. He then grabbed it, getting himself sent off. Seeing that Ingerlund have an unhappy history with hands of fate – or God – Hodgson may regret having used up so much luck early in his career.

John Terry
The happy-go-lucky, likeable twice once-captain is surely a good luck talisman for every manager he plays for. No?

Fifty years of hurt
The England supporters really believe they should be winning major titles. No, really they do. I know, despite all the evidence of the past half-century. This is on a par with the Tartan Army believing we should put a pish’d-up piper on the Moon by 2014.

The media won’t forgive him
The “leading” football journalists decided the new England manager would be Harry Redknapp. The “leading” football journalists told us it would be Harry Redknapp. Roy Hodgson is not Harry Redknapp. His appointment makes it seem that the “leading” football journalists were talking through their hats. You can hear the axes being sharpened right now.

Ross Ford playing against England last weekend <em>Picture: SRU</em>

Ross Ford playing against England last weekend Picture: SRU

Is the Scotland team which will face Wales this weekend better than the one that lost so dispiritingly to England? Undoubtedly. But could it have been even better? Unquestionably.

Andy Robinson, the Scotland coach, has changed his fly-half, dropping Dan Parks (who then quit test rugby in response) and replacing him with Greig Laidlaw.

That is certainly better for Scotland. Laidlaw is playing better than Parks at the moment, he performed well when he came on in the second half last weekend and should give Scotland a bit more of an attacking edge. He can also kick from the tee very, very well.

But, apart from that, Robinson has left the team virtually unchanged (he has brought in Geoff Cross for Euan Murray as tighthead prop but that was forced on him by Murray’s religious unavailability).

And will that be enough? Probably not.

The harsh reality is that Parks was only part of the problem for Scotland last week (and last year and the year before – back, in fact to the start of the current try drought).

The basic problem is that Robinson, like successive Scottish coaches before him, is picking players out of position.

It was instructive to watch how quickly the Irish and the Welsh backs moved the ball on Sunday, flicking the ball out of contact and presenting it in front of their colleagues to give them every chance of breaking the gain line. It is no coincidence that they had players in their chosen positions.

But Scotland? We still don’t see the need to play at proper inside centre, outside the fly-half. Robinson has yet again picked Sean Lamont at 12. Lamont, has been said many times before, is a fine winger and a selfless and passionate player for Scotland – one of the best, actually.

However, distribution is not his forte, to put it mildly. Remember his break against Wales at Cardiff two years ago when all he needed to do was pass left to the onrushing Kelly Brown for a certain Scotland score? Lamont delayed, the pass went forward and the chance was spurned – again.

So even with Laidlaw at fly-half, it is clear that Scotland are going to play a similar game to the one they tried at Murrayfield last weekend. The ball will be shipped from scrum-half to fly-half to inside centre and Lamont will take it into contact with the hope that it can be recycled quickly enough for Scotland to launch another – and more dangerous – attack. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

However, what is more important is when Lamont has to pass the ball, he isn’t a natural draw-the-man-and-pass kind-of player. Not like, for instance, Matt Scott who did so well for Scotland A last Friday night.

This strange desire to pick players out of position is, sadly, not a new development.

Gregor Townsend was good enough at ten to take that key role for the British and Irish Lions, yet Scottish coaches still pushed him around the back division, playing him at outside centre and elsewhere besides.

Chris Paterson is another who knows what it is like not to be picked in one’s favoured fly-half position. He played almost everywhere along the back line for Scotland during his time.

And now Robinson has decided to play a scrum-half (Laidlaw) at stand-off and a winger at inside centre.

Scotland have been doing this for years and, to be blunt, it hasn’t got them anywhere. Successive coaches have tried to get the maximum talent on the pitch – regardless of where they have to play – rather than picking players in their natural positions.

Robinson has gone halfway there by picking the in-form Laidlaw at ten (even though he is a natural scrum-half) because at least he is better than Parks. But is Robinson wants a proper running, fluid game he needs to pick a passing player at 12 – and shove Lamont back out on the wing where he plays best.

And, while he is at it, Robinson should also have picked Mike Blair at scrum-half, not just because he is playing well now (which he is), but because he dovetails beautifully with Laidlaw at club level and that understanding could be crucial.

Another change that should have been made is that of bringing back Richie Vernon – who had an outstanding game for the As last Friday – which would allow the impressive Dave Denton to move across to blindside flanker, where he plays most of his rugby.

It is good, though, to see the exciting Stuart Hogg on the bench. He could really do some damage if he comes on late in the game when gaps start to appear.

Robinson has made probably the minimum number of changes he could get away with – two: one enforced, the other inevitable.

But he should have gone further. He should not have been so conservative, because the danger for him and for Scotland is that his team will do better this weekend than last (they could hardly do worse actually) but again not do quite enough.

If Robinson is determined to go for Laidlaw not Duncan Weir at ten, then the team he should have selected is this one: Jacobsen, Ford, Cross, Gray, Kellock, Denton, Rennie, Vernon, Blair, Laidlaw, Evans, Scott, De Luca, Lamont, Lamont. Bench: Welsh, Lawson, Hamilton, Barclay, Cusiter, Weir, Hogg.

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Atlantic Ocean Road, Norway <em>Picture: Ernst Vikne</em>

Atlantic Ocean Road, Norway Picture: Ernst Vikne

What do you think of when you hear the word Scandinavian? Is it liberalism? Or social democracy? Perhaps high standards of living? Or high tax rates? Maybe saunas and snow?

Whatever it is, could we become Scandinavians – and, if we could, would we want to?

That was the issue which was raised to the top of the political agenda over the weekend when it emerged that SNP strategists believe that an independent Scotland’s future lies in looking north and east, not south.

Angus Robertson, the SNP’s foreign and defence spokesman, has been leading the charge towards the Nordicisation of Scotland and his arguments are compelling.

He points to the opening up of new shipping lanes over the north of Russia because of global warming. These new routes offer to save companies 40 per cent on fuel and time costs in journeys from the Far East to Europe.

At the moment, that trade will go to Rotterdam. But what, Mr Robertson argues, if some of that trade could be persuaded to come through Scotland – and, in particular, through a new container hub at Rosyth?

Then there is energy, and proposals for a super-grid between Scotland and Norway. Then there is oil, and fishing and maritime surveillance and defence.

Mr Robertson’s argument is that Scotland used to enjoy close trade, diplomatic and maritime links with Scandinavia, but these were lost when Scotland joined the Union with England and started looking south.

With independence, he says, it is time to look towards our old neighbours again.

But there is more. Along with this new, Scandic, approach to diplomacy and trade is a defence strategy designed to dovetail with the Norwegians, the Swedes and the Danes and provide Scotland with the sort of defence forces which the other Scandinavian countries have pioneered.

This means small, high-tech, deployable forces designed to look after our corner of the world which, along with the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes, means the High North and Arctic – not the plains of Germany, the deserts of Irag or the mountains of Afghanistan.

That is the overt message. But is there a subliminal one, as well? How much do we want to become like the Scandinavians domestically, too?

By talking about trade and diplomacy and energy and minerals and fishing and defence, senior Nationalists have started creating an image of an independent Scotland as one that is similar – at least outwardly – to its Scandinavian neighbours.

They insist that this would not mean punitively high rates of tax or conscription or any of the other aspects of Scandinavian life which may appear unpalatable.

But how would we feel if we went further and started to aspire to be like the Scandinavians in social policy, or in penal policy, or in taxation?

Everybody seems to agree that the Scandinavians enjoy an enviable standard of living, generally, and that they seem to reach agreement on key domestic agendas by doing what is right, rather than by political dogma – but Sweden also seems to have the highest tax rates in the world, and these have been blamed for limiting ambition and economic growth.

But maybe that is a good thing. Given where Scotland is at the moment on a whole range of different indices, maybe it would be good to swap what we have for the Scandinavian model – regardless of the downsides.

What is certain, though, is that we have to have this debate. The SNP leadership has opened up the prospect of Scotland shifting its focus dramatically after independence and this then raises fresh questions about what sort of country we would want an independent Scotland to be.

The SNP’s political opponents will accuse the Nationalists of simply repackaging the old “Arc of Prosperity” slogan – but this new “Nordic” model is more complicated, better researched and more rounded than the now discredited “Arc of Prosperity” mantra.

Whatever the political views about this new approach, what does need to happen is that we need to discuss it, debate it and explore all its pros and cons in a mature, rational and lengthy discourse.

After all, isn’t that what the Scandinavians would do?

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Richie Gray playing against France in the Six Nations <em>Picture: AP Photo/Michel Spingler</em>

Richie Gray playing against France in the Six Nations Picture: AP Photo/Michel Spingler

Richie Gray, by some distance the most impressive young star to come out of Scottish rugby for years, is to quit Glasgow Warriors for a lucrative move to English Premiership club Sale Sharks.

In what is a significant blow, not just for his Glasgow club but for the development of Scottish professional team rugby as a whole, Gray confirmed today that he had turned down a good offer from the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) to stay in Scotland.

The 22-year-old lock forward said he had always wanted to test himself in the English Premiership and it was too good an opportunity to turn down.

Gray, who has 16 Scotland caps and who has become one of the most recognisable – and marketable – assets in the Scottish game courtesy of his long, bleach-blond locks, will leave Glasgow at the end of the season.

Warriors chief executive, Kenny Baillie, told the club’s official website: “We’re clearly very disappointed that Richie has decided to move on at the end of the season.

“A concerted effort to retain his services has been made across many weeks by a significant number of people within Glasgow Warriors and Scottish Rugby.

“The package we presented to him was certainly substantial from both a playing and financial point of view, and Richie has informed us that this was an extremely difficult decision to make.

“We’ll be sad to see him go, but it’s important to emphasise that Glasgow Warriors are far from a one-man team, and Richie’s departure will not affect our and Scottish Rugby’s commitment to ensuring the club continues to grow on and off the field.”

Gray’s departure represents a major setback for Mark Dodson, the SRU’s new chief executive, who has made the professional teams a cornerstone of his plan to revitalise the Scottish game.

He made a particular point of stressing the need to create minor celebrities out of Scotland’s best young stars and none were bigger – in every sense – than the 6’ 9” Gray.

“There’s naturally disappointment on our side because we’re committed to keeping our top players in Scotland and Richie comes into that category,” Mr Dodson said.

“We did everything in our power to hold on to him, but we respect his decision, and look forward to supporting him as a key component of the national team.

“I’d like to reassure supporters of the professional teams that we will be doing everything in our power to support our coaches in securing the leading players at both Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh on long-term contracts, because we want to consolidate the clubs’ position as competitive, regularly winning entities in the RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup.”

Gray’s departure does, however, represent the latest in a trend of the best Scottish players heading either south to England or over the Channel to France.

There is an argument that this may be no bad thing, that the best players are then taken on to a higher level by other clubs in more competitive leagues, that they get the chance to vie for silverware and know what it takes to win at the top end of the sport.

Their high wages are also picked up by the bigger English and French clubs and they also leave room for aspiring Scottish players to take their places in the Scottish pro sides.

With the equivalent of a full XV of Scottish internationals now playing outside Scotland, it is arguable that there are now three Scottish pro sides: Edinburgh, Glasgow and an exiles XV – which gives Andy Robinson a wider choice when he comes to pick the Scottish national side.

But, on the other side, there is the undoubted loss to the Scottish sides when they lose players of such quality as Gray.

The Scottish sides have always struggled against their richer European competitors and, unless they start winning consistently, will never be able to give the national side the boost that winning provincial sides in Ireland and Wales do routinely. And, to win consistently, they need to keep their best players.

Gray said the decision had been “the hardest call of my career” and vowed to keep impressing during his remaining time as a Warrior.

He continued: “I’d like to put on record my thanks to Glasgow Warriors for the support they’ve given me in all aspects of my life as a professional rugby player.

“Being a proud Glaswegian, it’s been a massive honour to wear the blue and black jersey, and I’m looking forward to enjoying more special days in it before my time here ends.

“I was impressed by the efforts that the club and Scottish Rugby made to keep me in Glasgow, and it’s without doubt the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.

“This isn’t about money: I’ve always been keen to test myself in England, and I feel this is a good opportunity to do so.”

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