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Sean Lamont – never stops trying

Sean Lamont – never stops trying

So that’s it for another four years. Barring a Georgian upset of seismic proportions, Scotland are out of the Rugby World Cup having failed to get beyond the pool stage for the first time.

After today’s 16–12 defeat to England, Scotland didn’t really deserve to progress, having lost two of their four pool matches and only scraping by in the two they did win, against Romania and Georgia.

But those bald match statistics don’t tell the real story of how, yet again, Scotland dominated a game against supposedly superior opponents and, yet again, failed to kill off the match when they had the chance.

Scotland were leading 9–3 at half time and 12–3 midway through the second half, but they allowed England to score 13 unanswered points in the final third of the game.

For the second week running, Scotland were the better team over the 80 minutes – but, once again, it was their opponents who were the more clinical, taking the one chance they had and, with it, the match and those all-important World Cup points.

England had not looked like scoring before Chris Ashton’s try in the last ten minutes, and rarely had they threatened the Scotland line.

But the problem for Scotland was that they didn’t really look like scoring, either. The best chance came after a Simon Danielli kick down the left channel which sat on the ground five metres from the try-line for Nick De Luca to pick up and score.

The Scotland centre couldn’t collect the ball and the chance disappeared. There was one kick over to the left corner from Dan Parks – but, however athletic Richie Gray is, he is still a second-row forward and it needed a back or a Richie Vernon to be waiting on the wing for Scotland to have had any chance of outpacing Tom Croft to the ball. And so that slight chance was gone, too.

Once again, this was a story of slight but definite dominance up front and a complete lack of finishing from the backs. Scotland lack the clinical edge their opponents seem to find and, until Scotland do find a way of crossing the try-line more regularly, they will struggle to win these close games.

Once again, the forwards were immense. Euan Murray destroyed Matt Stevens in the front row. Richie Gray and Al Kellock more than held their own in the line-out and the back row dominated the breakdown, slowing down England ball and providing a good supply for their half-backs.

Mike Blair was almost back to his best, making a series of sniping runs to keep England going backwards. But, while there was plenty of grunt outside him, Scotland just didn’t have backs of the quality of someone like Ashton.

Right through this game, Scots supporters all over the world would have shared the nagging feeling that England always had the ability to produce something special and that, despite never really threatening, they had the players to find that score from nothing – and so it proved.

Scotland were stretched near the end, but Toby Flood’s looping pass was perfect because it cut out the Scottish drift defence and left Ashton the space he needed to squeeze in at the corner.

For Ruaridh Jackson, the game ended early when he went off in the opening minutes with a hamstring injury. With Parks controlling the game, Scotland’s back play was relatively laboured and slow and there is no way of knowing how the faster and better-passing Jackson would have done in the circumstances.

But at least Scotland had Parks’ boot to rely on, first from the tee when he struck a penalty which was out of Chris Paterson’s range and then with a dropped goal on the stroke of half-time followed by another in the second half.

Parks also controlled territory well, sending a series of kicks to the English touchlines and keeping Scotland in their opponents’ half. But it was his over-cooked cross-kick to the corner (which Gray had no chance of gathering) and a wasted up-and-under close to England’s posts that handed over possession to the English at crucial times.

So England march on to a quarter-final with a so far unimpressive French side that lost to Tonga this morning, while Scotland head home.

The Scots always knew the games with Argentina and England would prove crucial – and, having lost them both, there is little they can argue with.

Looking back, the Scots will know they played well enough to win both games, but the usual fault of a lack of finishing and the absence of a clinical edge cost them dear.

On the plus side, Murray is back to his best at tighthead – even though his refusal to play on Sundays is still a handicap. The locks and the back-rows all performed with distinction against a series of mighty packs, and Jackson has really matured.

Other than that, we know that Max Evans is Scotland’s most dangerous attacker, that Sean Lamont never stops trying and that Joe Ansbro has real quality. But the bottom line is that Scotland only scored four tries in four games and all of those came against the relative minnows of Romania.

That, in the end, just isn’t good enough – and that is the biggest difference between Scotland and the rest of the nations around their level in world rugby. It will be something to reflect on ruefully as they watch the rest of the tournament, with the rest of us, on television.

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Max Evans evades Jaba Bregvadze of Georgia in the Rugby World Cup

Max Evans evades Jaba Bregvadze of Georgia in the Rugby World Cup

According to some, it was the missed dropped goal from Dan Parks that cost Scotland victory. According to others, it was the lapse in concentration that failed to secure the kick-off which ultimately resulted in Argentina’s try. For others, it was referee Wayne Barnes’ failure to spot the Argentinians offside when Parks went for that fluffed dropped goal.

But really, while all these played their part in Scotland’s agonising 13–12 defeat to Argentina today in Wellington, what really mattered was Scotland’s inability to collect points when they had the clear advantage of territory and possession.

For the first 15 minutes of the second half, the Scots were all over the Argentinians. The Scots had line breaks, they were constantly in their opponents’ 22, they forced mistakes and knock-ons from the Argentinians – yet, try as they might, they couldn’t score.

It was that long passage of play when Scotland needed to come back with something, anything: a penalty, a dropped goal or a try (converted or not) from that spell encamped under the Argentinian posts – and they came back with nothing.

That was what really mattered at the end because, when the Argentinians had a chance, the one in the whole match, they took it and scored.

In that sense, today’s Pool B defeat in the Rugby World Cup was marked by familiar failings: the depressingly typical Scottish failing of not being able to score tries, not being clinical and ruthless when presented with the chance to score.

Andy Robinson has created a courageous, stubborn, defensively strong, combative team, but he is no nearer unlocking that spark of creativity and ruthlessness which Scotland need to step up to the next level than his predecessors.

And the problem is that Scotland may well not just have to beat England next week to progress, but do so with a four-try bonus point – and Scotland have hardly ever looked like scoring four tries. They did so against the whipping boys of Romania, but only when they were desperately trying to rescue the game and scored the fourth right at the end.

Today’s defeat was also, in a sense, waiting to happen. It was the day the Scots luck ran out. In 2003, Scotland scraped through to the quarter-finals courtesy of a last-minute score against Fiji which gave them a two-point 22–20 win. In 2007, Scotland were equally lucky, edging past Italy again by just two points, 18–16, after the Italians missed an easy pot at goal.

So today’s defeat, while it is deeply depressing for all Scotland fans, was really probably on the cards at some stage. Scotland haven’t really improved from the sides that crawled into the quarter-finals in 2003 and 2007, so this was always going to be close, really close.

Did Scotland deserve to win today? Yes. They had the better chances, they were more harshly dealt with by the referee than were their Argentinian opponents, the 50-50 decisions went against them but – again – they failed to score a try.

The Argentinians scored the only try of the game, so they would argue they deserved the win.

The Argentinians also bossed the breakdown, at least in the first half. They didn’t just slow Scottish down ball, they snaffled the ball some of the time and forced Scotland to give away penalties at others.

Scotland improved after the break, committing more forwards to the rucks to clear the Argentinians out – but Scotland also suffered at the setpiece scrums. The Scottish front row was doing well against their more vaunted opponents, but it was the Argentinians who managed to come away with more in terms of penalties when. On at least one occasion it looked as if they had duped the referee into penalising Scotland when it had been the Argentinians who had been breaking the rules.

But that was always going to be the case. This was always going to be a tight game, fought out by the forwards in the driving rain, allowing for little creativity on either side. If ever there was a game suited to the forward-orientated Argentinians, then this was it.

It was a shame, though, that Chris Paterson should be the one who missed the all-important tackle to led to the Argentinian try. Paterson has rescued Scotland on more occasions than anybody else in the side but, on this one occasion, he failed and the game was lost.

On the plus side, the Scottish line-out was excellent – most of the time. It was mainly secure on Scotland’s throws and pinched at least one Argentinian throw.

John Barclay was back to his best at seven, Kelly Brown was solid at eight and Al Strokosch was combative – if not dominant – at six. Max Evans was brilliant on his wing, always hungry for the ball and creative with it – although, try as he might, even he couldn’t conjure that one try-scoring opportunity.

Rory Lawson’s distribution was efficient but it was his half-back partner, Ruaridh Jackson, who really came of age. He took his dropped goal really well, he kicked well for the corners and brought his backs into the game sharply.

He really should have ended all discussions on the pivotal fly-half role now simply because he does some things better than Parks (passes, runs and tackles) – and of those other attributes at which Parks is supposed to excel (kicking for the corners, dropped goals), Jackson is now his equal.

The likelihood is that this result will condemn Scotland to an early return after the pool stages – for the first time in the country’s World Cup history.

In that sense, this is a harsh penalty for a one-point loss that could have gone either way. But the reality is that Scotland have not excelled in this World Cup. They got out jail against Romania, put Georgia away rather uneasily without scoring a try and were edged out by Argentina.

They haven’t looked the sort of side that really looks like it deserves to go through and challenge in the latter stages – not like Ireland, for instance.

The Scots have one match to redeem their World Cup, but they know that heroics and a win over England might not be even enough to keep them in the cup.

It would certainly help, though, not just for the team but for the whole of Scotland, if they could produce their one big team effort next Saturday.

It would be nice for all of us, those who have travelled to New Zealand and those of us back home, to have something to cheer about, after all.

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Scotland's Richie Gray tackled by Daniel Carpo of Romania in the Rugby World Cup

Scotland's Richie Gray tackled by Daniel Carpo of Romania in the Rugby World Cup

Rugby’s global controllers just don’t get it – and, until they do, the game will never grow to become the world sport it could and should be.

The issue here – and this is the one starting to overshadow the whole Rugby World Cup – is scheduling. Or rather, it is the totally unfair, biased and discriminatory scheduling for this tournament which is not just undermining the authority of the International Rugby Board but threatening to make the IRB as discredited as its football equivalent, FIFA.

Samoan centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu broke ranks yesterday to launch a rant against the ridiculous scheduling which, he claimed, has all but conspired to send his country home after the pool stages.

The IRB should take his stinging criticisms seriously because they are shared by outraged and indignant rugby fans the world over. But what is the IRB doing? Considering whether to discipline Fuimaono-Sapolu instead.

It is an absurd stance to take. Fuimaono-Sapolu should be listened to and lauded for his bravery in speaking out against rugby’s controllers.

This is what he tweeted: “IRB, Stop exploiting my people. Please, all we ask, is fairness. If they get a week, give us a week. Simple. #equ[al]ity #justice.”

He later added: “Ok, it’s obvious the IRB are unjust. Wales get 7 days, we get 3. Unfair treatment, like slavery, like the holocaust, like apartheid.

“Give Wales 3 days off and give Samoa a week! We would kill them!

“You can’t get punished for speaking out against injustice. That would be unjust. Anyone can tackle a man. Try tackling injustice.”

The object of his derision was the organisers’ decision to force Samoa to play two games in the space of four days – but, more than that, to play what was always destined to be their crucial game, against Wales, with just a few days’ rest while their opponents were granted a whole week off.

Just look at Pool B. The Georgians were forced to play probably their two toughest matches, against Scotland and England, within four days of each other – and England, well they got a whole week off.

It doesn’t stop there. The Americans had to play Russia just four days after playing Ireland. And Ireland? They got the best part of a week off to prepare for their crunch game against Australia.

The IRB claims that it has to schedule the matches of the big nations on the weekends because that is when the television audiences are at their biggest. That means the big nations get a week to prepare for each game, while the lesser nations often get only a few days.

The one exception is Scotland. The Scots were the only tier one nation required to play two games in the space of four days (that actually shows that the organisers don’t see Scotland as a big TV market, which is understandable).

The Scots found it difficult, but they coped. Afterwards, voices in the Scottish camp said they thought it would be fairer if it was the top tier nations who had less of a turnaround time because they have more depth to their squads. They are right.

If matches have to be scheduled for the middle of the week, then the IRB should make the big nations play twice in four days. They have the stronger squads and they shouldn’t need as much recovery time as the more limited second tier nations.

But, more than that, this would lead to more competitive matches – one of the reasons Scotland struggled to put both Romania and Georgia away convincingly was because Andy Robinson had to split his first team between the games.

Look how England racked up the points in the final quarter against an exhausted Georgian side on Sunday. Had the roles been reversed, how close could that game have been?

This is rugby which, at the top level, is a brutal, tough and draining environment. It is just wrong to ask countries to play twice in four days if they don’t have the depth to put out two completely different, competitive XVs.

There would undoubtedly be closer matches if the top tier countries were the ones having to cope with a short turnaround and then, rugby as a whole would be the winner.

The Rugby World Cup would gain in credibility if the tournament was a lot closer, if there really was the chance of an upset in most games but it appears as if the IRB are too blinkered to see that.

The scheduling may well have been done for commercial television reasons, but it has certainly left the impression that the IRB is nothing more than a cosy little club designed to preserve the cushy existence of a few top tier nations.

Could Samoa have beaten Wales had they been given a week to recover from their last game? Quite possibly. Could the result have been different, moreover, had it been Wales and not Samoa who had to play two games within four days? Even more likely.

The suspicion is that, while the IRB talks a good game on promoting rugby around the world, it really doesn’t want to see any of the emerging nations really break through and, heaven forbid, get to a quarter- or a semi-final. That would mean one of their cherished big nations missing out – and would mean a loss of audience and a loss of revenue.

But unless and until the IRB wakes up to the fact that rugby supporters everywhere want to see good, close games and, more than that, they want to see equality between top nations and the also-rans, the IRB will continue to lose credibility.

Ultimately, what is so wrong about this is not that the top nations have been given an advantage – which they were – it is that the lesser nations were actually penalised and made to play to a much more punishing schedule against their better funded and better resourced counterparts. That is what is so shocking about it.

Just ask Richie Dixon, the Scots coach of Georgia, what he thinks about the timetabling of his country’s two big games.

This Rugby World Cup should be and could be the most fantastic showpiece of the game for the world. Unfortunately, whatever the end result, it has already left a very nasty taste because of the short-sightedness and the distinct lack of fair play by the organisers.

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<em>Picture: shimgray</em>

Picture: shimgray

Andy Robinson set his side the target of a minimum of nine points from Scotland’s first two games in Invercargill, and that is what they achieved.

The Scots leave Invercargill this week with two wins over Romania (34–24) and Georgia (15–6), but with just one four-try bonus point.

It leaves Scotland on top of Rugby World Cup Pool B, and they will have to wait and see whether England and Argentina can do what they failed to do in securing maximum points against the two poorest sides in the group.

But, given the difficulty that both Romania and Georgia gave Scotland, the two wins are vital in themselves – regardless of the lost second bonus point.

Scotland have played both Romania and Georgia and won both games. It is now up to Argentina and England to do likewise.

For Scotland, the points are in the bag, they didn’t seem to suffer any injuries in either game and they now have an 11-day window to recover and prepare for the all-important Argentina game.

It is a good position to be in.

They will also know that the pressure will now be on England and Argentina to do likewise. Scotland are in the better place than their rivals now – so they should savour it.

The only disappointment going into this break is a recurring one: that Euan Murray will not available for the Argentina clash because he won’t play on a Sunday.

Murray was immense against Georgia today. He and fellow prop Allan Jacobsen more than matched their much-vaunted Georgian opponents in the scrum and, with the big Argentinian pack to come, the strength and stability Murray brings to the pack will be sorely missed.

As for the game itself, it certainly wasn’t pretty.

Fly-half Dan Parks kicked all of Scotland’s points – four penalties and a drop goal – in a game that often seemed to look more like an arm-wrestle in the mud than a rugby match.

The conditions were poor: it rained from midway through the first half right to the end, allowing neither side to really play rugby.

But it was the Georgians who dictated the stolid, unadventurous feel to the game by keeping everything tight and then tackling hard and slowing down delivery every time Scotland got the ball.

Much had been made of the Georgians’ ability in the scrum, but Scotland more than matched their opponents in the tight. The Scots then tackled hard and fast to stop any Georgian go-forward.

The Lamont brothers, Sean on the wing and Rory at full-back, had good games going forward but Sean was guilty of a couple of poor handling errors that turned possession over to the Georgians.

That was the story of most of the game for Scotland. Several times, the Scots got themselves in good positions only to knock the ball on, turn it over or lose it in contact.

They gave away too many turnovers – that will be punished by better teams – and made too many handling errors. But they won the game against hard, professional and uncompromising opponents.

Parks succeeded in kicking over four penalties but missed three as well – points which could have put the game beyond Georgian reach earlier and possibly have allowed Scotland to play with more adventure and positivity earlier on.

Scotland were looking to grind out the win and then, if they could, to open it up. But they never got far enough away from the Georgians to relax and start playing.

As a result, it was a forward-orientated battle – a battle which Scotland came through on top.

As the Scots relax over the next few days, though, they won’t really care about the manner of victory.

They can look at the Pool B table, see the nine points garnered from a possible ten, and bask in an Invercargill mission well done. It could have been better, that is true – but, as every Scotland supporter knows full well – it could have been an awful lot worse.

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Jim Hamilton collecting line-out ball against Ireland in August

Jim Hamilton collecting line-out ball against Ireland in August

Should we be worried? Is Scotland’s Rugby World Cup already stuttering to ignominy after Saturday’s edgy win over the minnows of Romania?

No. Not at all. Yes, Scotland were pretty dreadful for the middle half of the match. Yes, Romania took the lead with ten minutes to go and could easily have won – and yes, Scotland were within few tense minutes of the worst result in their history.

But look at the facts. Scotland won. Scotland scored four tries, collected a win bonus point and prevented their opponents from picking up a losing one. Scotland also showed admirable composure to score two late tries to win the match when they looked like heading for defeat, two tries – it has to be said – that were among the best scored by a Scotland side for some time.

It is also worth bearing in mind that none of the major or middle-ranked test sides have found it easy in this world cup. The International Rugby Board has spent considerable sums investing in the smaller nations, an investment that is paying dividends now.

The All Blacks only beat Tonga by 41–10 – a margin, to be frank, that many Scots would have been happy to concede to New Zealand in New Zealand. Ireland struggled to subdue the USA and won by 22–10 without getting that four-try bonus point – and France, although they ran out easy 47–21 winners over Japan, were within seven points of their Asian opponents at one stage in the second half, such was the Japanese fightback.

The days of easy wins over the also-rans of world rugby appear to be over. To be fair, Scotland have always struggled to really put the minnows away, so we shouldn’t really be surprised by the Romanian effort on Saturday and the Scottish team’s inability to sweep them aside with ease.

In the aftermath, much has been talked about Romanian dominance at the scrum and how Georgia – Scotland’s next opponents on Wednesday – have an even better, bigger scrum than Romanian.

Again, perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much – for a couple of reasons. We should expect Andy Robinson to pick his biggest, most powerful pack. That means, surely, Euan Murray on the tighthead and big Jim Hamilton in the second row, possibly with Nathan Hines at six and Al Strokosch at number eight.

Murray should keep the front row solid and, with Hamilton pushing from behind, there is no reason to think that the Scots will get pushed off the ball as they did against Romania. This is the key because, if the Scots can get parity up front, they should surely be able to beat the Georgians behind the scrum.

Expect also Dan Parks to be picked at ten. This is a game that has to be played in the Georgian half. One of the reasons Scotland allowed Romania to get so close to winning the game on Saturday was because Scotland gave away penalties and scrums in their own 22. All the Romanians had to do was scrummage away until they scored.

Scotland have to play the game down the other end of the park – and if that means ten-man rugby, at least until Scotland get the ball to hand in their opponents’ 22, then so be it. Parks will kick to the corners in an effort to nullify both the Georgian scrum and its driving mauls.

We should also expect to see the return of Graeme Morrison at 12 and Nick de Luca at 13, probably with Sean Lamont shifting out to one wing, Max Evans on the other and possible Rory Lamont at full back – but that depends on how confident Robinson is in Parks’ kicking from the tee.

Should we be worried? Not really. Not at this stage.

If, however, it gets to the stage it was in the Romanian game, with our lowly opponents leading with ten minutes to go, then we should worry – really worry.

Because, although Scotland should win the game, should score another four tries and get that all-important bonus point, they may not: anybody who has spent any length of time watching Scotland play rugby knows we can take nothing for granted.

Scotland can win and should win – but, hey, this is Scotland we are talking about and nothing, ever, is as simple or as straightforward as it should.

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Sean Lamont playing against Ireland in August

Sean Lamont playing against Ireland in August

With two games in five days – and the second one likely to be the harder of the two – Andy Robinson might have been tempted to give his second XV a run-out for Scotland’s opening Rugby World Cup fixture against Romania in Invercargill on Saturday.

But no. The Scotland coach has opted for (pretty much) his first-choice pack and probably five out of seven of his first-pick backs, too.

It is easy to see why. Romania should represent a comfortable win for Scotland, but it would be a calamity to lose this first match and Scotland have not exactly been good at putting away the minnows in previous World Cups – hence the almost full-strength team.

There are confusing aspects to it, though. Given that Euan Murray’s faith prevents him from playing against Argentina (because the game is on a Sunday), why is he being rested for the Romania game?

Surely the best thing would have been to have used Murray against Romania and again against Georgia on Wednesday, and then given him a long rest before the last pool game, against England?

As it is, Geoff Cross is starting at tighthead against Romania and Murray looks certain to start against Georgia. Apart from that, the rest of the pack represents Robinson’s first-choice scrum.

This is again slightly concerning, given that the Georgia game comes just four days later and, boasting a bigger and better pack than Romania, Georgia will represent a more hostile physical challenge to Scotland than will the Romanians.

Will Robinson’s first-choice pack have recovered in time to compete with the Georgians, or does Robinson use second XV players for that one?

Behind the scrum, Robinson has decided to play four wingers – two of them out of position. Max Evans and Simon Danielli take the wing berths, but Joe Ansbro is at outside centre and Sean Lamont is at inside centre.

Lamont is probably Scotland’s best winger at the moment, but everyone knows his distribution isn’t the greatest. He is great at attacking space and opposing players – but, at 12, he needs to release the ball too. Can he do it? We shall have to see.

As a result, the team looks oddly balanced. It has a solid scrum – probably the best Scotland can put out with the exception of Murray – and although many of Scotland’s best backs have been picked, some are out of position, which makes it look uneasy.

It suggests that some of the forwards will have to play against Romania and Georgia within five days while the back line against Georgia will probably be more settled and stable: probably Lawson, Parks, Evans, Morrison, De Luca, Lamont, Lamont.

Robinson must be hoping that Scotland sweep into an early lead against Romania, allowing him to take off as many of his players as possible as early as possible and use all his substitutes, giving seven of the starting XV more time to recuperate for the Georgia game.

However, given that Scotland have struggled against teams like Romania for years and years, that is probably wishful thinking.

The most likely outcome, given past form, is that Scotland will struggle to subdue the Romanians for most of the game and will only pull ahead to record a relatively comfortable victory in the final quarter. And, if the game is tight after 60 minutes, Robinson will be reluctant to take his starting XV off, just so he can make sure of victory.

That, though, is the most important thing. Scotland need to win on Saturday. A comfortable, non-injury, all-subs-used victory with plenty of tries would be ideal, but the win is paramount.

The same again against Georgia would be even better, particularly given the way the Georgians took the game to Ireland in 2007, only going down 14–10 and unluckily as well given the way the Georgians battered the Irish line for the final 15 minutes.

Robinson will be well aware of the threat the Georgians pose and that they are better now than they were in 2007. Scotland also face the unfortunate but unpalatable truth that teams like Romania and Georgia will target the Scotland game as the one against top-ranked opposition that they stand most chance of winning – so it will not be easy.

But, if Scotland can emerge from week one with two wins, no serious injuries and a few tries, then that should be cheered. Anything less and the World Cup campaign will suddenly become very desperate indeed.

Every rugby fan in the world wants to see an upset in the first rounds of game, but none wants their own side to be the victim. Scotland have managed to avoid such disasters at every World Cup so far – having never lost to opponents ranked below them in a World Cup – and this would be a very good time to keep that record going.

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Richie Vernon playing for Scotland against the All Blacks last November

Richie Vernon playing for Scotland against the All Blacks last November

As the successful 30 players chosen by Andy Robinson to represent Scotland look out their passports today, Glasgow’s Johnnie Beattie will be heading back to his club devastated that, like his famous rugby-playing father, he too has missed out on a chance to compete in a World Cup in New Zealand.

Robinson has explained his decision to leave Beattie behind by arguing that the 25-year-old number eight was not as consistent as his rivals – and, although hugely talented, Beattie needed to improve his all-round game.

That may indeed be true but, in one sense at least, Beattie’s chances of going to New Zealand were made much tougher than they perhaps should have been by prop Euan Murray’s insistence that he will not play on Sundays.

Murray is one of Scotland’s standout scrummagers and Robinson did not want to do without him in what will be tough forward battles against some of the best packs on earth: from England, Georgia, Romania and Argentina.

But, because he won’t play on Sundays, Murray has already ruled himself out of the game against Argentina (on Sunday 25 September) and the potential quarter-final on Sunday 9 October, if Scotland come second in their pool.

As a result, Robinson decided he would be leaving himself with inadequate cover for this position if he took only two tightheads: so he has taken three – Murray, Geoff Cross and Moray Low.

With only 17 forwards travelling to New Zealand and three covering just one position, this left Robinson with no option but to take only five back-row forwards to cover three positions – and, in that mix, only one specialist number eight.

This meant Beattie had to fight it out with Richie Vernon for the sole number eight slot, and Vernon got it courtesy of his speed around the park.

Scotland could really do with Murray in New Zealand, but his decision to opt out of Sunday matches has put added pressure on the rest of the squad. Yes, Robinson has more than enough cover at tighthead, but now he only has one proper number eight and only five back-rowers.

What happens in Vernon goes down injured in the first minute of the first game? Scotland do now look a bit threadbare at the base of the scrum.

It is true that Al Strokosch can fill in at number eight and Nathan Hines can deputise at six, but a team with those two in place will resemble something of a patchwork, make-do-and-mend side – not one that is fully balanced, which Scotland will need to be to defeat either Argentina or England.

Surely it would have been better to have selected just two tighthead props and, given Murray’s stance, perhaps Robinson should have left Murray behind (however good a scrummager he is) and taken Cross and Low. Or, if Murray is too important to be left at home, then Robinson should have taken him and Cross and told Murray he would be playing every minute of every game that does not fall on a Sunday.

However, that imbalance between the number three and number eight shirts is probably the only glitsch in Robinson’s squad.

The coach does have the satisfaction of knowing that he has lost fewer players to injury than any of his near European rivals – so perhaps his two-game warm-up agenda was the right one.

Only Nikki Walker can feel himself to be unlucky, having gone down injured in the final three minutes of the Italy game last Saturday and, as a result, missing the flight to New Zealand.

Walker has not always been Scotland’s most consistent performer, particularly in defence, but he has been running good lines recently and he is very powerful. It seems likely that he would have travelled, if fit, and his loss will be felt by the team in New Zealand – if only because his replacement is Simon Danielli who, if anything, is even more inconsistent than Walker.

Danielli has an eye for the try-line, which is good, but often fixes both eyes on it to the exclusion of all else, including supporting players. He has also been guilty in the past of rushing out for glory-seeking interceptions and missing the ball, allowing the opposition a free run to the Scotland line in his absence.

But Danielli will not be one of Robinson’s first-choice starters – so, while he may get a run out against Romania, Georgia or both, he is unlikely to start against England or Argentina unless injuries intervene.

As for that starting XV for those two final crunch games, it looks now as it Robinson’s first-choice team will look something like this: 1 Allan Jacobsen, 2 Ross Ford, 3 Euan Murray, 4 Richie Gray, 5 Al Kellock, 6 Kelly Brown, 7 John Barclay, 8 Richie Vernon, 9 Chris Cusiter, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 11 Max Evans, 12 Graeme Morrison, 13 Nick De Luca, 14 Sean Lamont, 15 Chris Paterson. Subs: Geoff Cross, Dougie Hall, Nathan Hines, Ross Rennie, Mike Blair, Dan Parks, Joe Ansbro.

Although, with two-and-a-half weeks to go until Scotland’s first game against Georgia on 10 September, both Mike Blair and Rory Lawson have a chance to force themselves into the starting lineup, as does Joe Ansbro.

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The Old FirmIt’s fascinating how sporting rivalries can change when Scots move away from this country. There’s a discussion going on in a LinkedIn Group at the moment It started when a lady in Hawaii, called Kimo Kekahuna, asked the question: “Are there any Celtic v Rangers supporters who would like to stage an epic match in America?”

At first glance, that looks like a simply sporting challenge. Get the supporters of the two teams into the same stadium, organise them into teams and get them to play off in a kind of Challenge Cup. To begin with, that’s how people saw it. A woman by the name of Margaret Kennedy suggested that: “if you get through to the right people, and find a good charity, you could possible even arrange for a couple of the old ‘Gers and Celtic players to play in the match.”

That prompted others to point out that there were probably more fans for both teams in North America than there were in Glasgow. One noted that: “Celtic Boys Club has been playing in New Jersey every summer since I can remember with support from both the Scots Club and Irish Club in Kearny.”

But the whole thing then started to grow wings. People began to talk about how to market the event. A certain rivalry started about where it could take place – Atlanta, Chicago and Boston have all been mentioned. A man called Jim Gaffey argued that there would be “a strong audience here in Atlanta – and several of us have those connections. I can quickly put potential in front of folks who would be interested in other cities particularly Boston and NYC”.

The names of organisations that might benefit started being bandied about. Tartan Week was one. The Illinois St Andrew Society was another. As one writer pointed out, the latter has “been looking to get more involved in this sort of thing for a while”. It was clear from the recent Scottish North American Leadership Conference, which it hosted, that it’s trying to bring the Scots communities closer together.

Others felt that such a match could be used to promote Tartan Week in other parts of North America than just New York and a couple of other cities. They suggested that it could be linked with the “Dressed To Kilt” event which was described as “a natural centrepiece for the week and would be well received by the fashion fraternity in Atlanta”.

Then it all began to change when a man called Duncan Mackay interpreted the question in a new light. “Great idea to get Rangers and Celtic over to the US,” he wrote. He pointed out that European teams had come to the US during their off season in July or August, using the game to get ready for the season. Last summer, Celtic played Sporting Lisbon at Fenway Park in Boston in front of a large audience.

As Mackay explained. “The people at Fenway are sharp marketeers and that is the key. The hook was “soccer at Fenway”. They also did ice hockey last January. There would need to be a sharp promotion team behind the ‘old firm’ match up. It needs to be near a large enough population base and have a good stadium.”

Some of those taking part in this debate recalled that the idea had been mooted before. As one explained: “There were negotiations this year to have a Rangers vs Celtic match at Fenway, but some ill-informed comments in the Boston Globe regarding the 1971 Ibrox disaster, which resulted in 66 deaths, caused Rangers to withdraw.”

That seemed to cause some writers pause for thought. Some of the posts confirmed that Scots in North America are different from Scots at home. Take Sherri Zelina for example. She recalled visiting friends in Georgia in October last year.

“I forced them to get up at the crack of dawn and find the local Celtic Supporters club to watch the Old Firm match. Only to find, BOTH sides were in the same bar, watching the match ‘together’. It was great! We had a super time and even stayed after, watching the English and Italian leagues with fans from both sides. Everyone ‘played nice’! It was an example of good sportsmanship.”

People then started talking about media rights. They suggested Sky Sports for the UK audience as a likely first choice. That prompted the supporters of Atlanta to add another possible attraction, the city being the home of CNN. This was proposed by a man named Jim Gaffney who admitted to being “an advisor to the Atlanta Press Club”.

All this started from what appeared to be a simple suggestion about a match between fans. Where could all this lead? Celtic and Rangers leaving the SPL not for England but for New England? Perhaps not, but it’s worth thinking about.

US troops heading for Afghanistan

US troops heading for Afghanistan

There are hopeful sounds coming out of Washington that President Barack Obama’s military “surge” in Afghanistan is beginning to wear down the Taliban, which could pave the way for an eventual withdrawal. However, there is concern in Russia that, far from being successful, the US is preparing to cut and run, declaring mission accomplished as it leaves.

Mr Obama ordered another 30,000 troops into Afghanistan last December, with a withdrawal scheduled to start in July next year. Yesterday, the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, confirmed that the plan was still on track, after the president was told by the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, that progress against the Taliban was “slow but steady”, and would continue that way through the rest of this year.

As recently as January, however, the top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj-Gen Michael Flynn, described the Taliban as a loosely organised but effective force that could sustain itself indefinitely. Having set up a “shadow government” with “governors” in all but one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, the Taliban’s “organisational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding”, Gen Flynn warned then.

So what is the true picture at the present time? And why should Russia be concerned?

Moscow supported western intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11 because it believed the US occupation would be temporary. The US is still there, and Russia feels its historic influence in Central Asia is under threat, not only because of the continued US presence in Afghanistan but also because it fears the US might fail to halt the spread of Islamic extremism into Pakistan, a nuclear power. Moscow would like to see the Americans succeed in turning Afghanistan into a peaceful buffer state between Central Asia and the Middle East, and would like to work with the US in stemming the flow of drugs from Afghanistan into Russia. In short, Moscow is worried and wants to be kept in the loop.

“We were the first to defend western civilisation against the attacks of Muslim fanatics,” wrote Boris Gromov, who commanded the 40th Soviet Army in Afghanistan, and Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, in a New York Times article earlier this year. “No-one thanked us. On the contrary, everyone was impeding our actions: the United States, NATO, Iran, Pakistan, even China”.

Now Mr Gromov and Mr Rogozin deplore what they see as “the national selfishness of peace-loving Europeans” in calling for a NATO withdrawal. NATO troops should remain in Afghanistan, they said, “until the necessary conditions are provided to establish stable local authorities capable of independently deterring radical forces and controlling the country”.

Other Russian analysts have called for NATO to engage not only Russia but China, India, Central Asian and Gulf states and, more controversially, Iran, in persuading Afghan factions to reach a peace accord. They believe the time is ripe for closer co-operation between the US and Russia in the region.

“The Bush administration offered the wrong incentives to win Russia’s assistance [in Afghanistan],” wrote Dmitri Trenin, a former Russian army officer, and historian Alexei Malashenko, in an article published by the Carnegie Center Moscow. They list these as “NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union [Ukraine and Georgia]; US support for a Georgian president bent on solving ethnic conflicts in his country by force; and a US plan to deploy missile defences close to Russia’s borders and with some capability of weakening the Russian deterrence capacity.

“There is a widely held view in Moscow – now that these irritants are off the table during the Obama administration – that the general environment of US-Russian relations is now more propitious for closer collaboration on issues such as Afghanistan.”

But they said there were concerns in Moscow about “[Afghan President Hamid] Karzai’s longevity or the Western commitment”. “The Obama administration has decided in principle to work hard to achieve its new, scaled-down objectives and largely disengage from Afghanistan by the end of Barack Obama’s current term in office. The administration needs to realise, however, that US involvement with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the Muslim world is long-term. Abandonment – ‘cutting and running’ – is not a good option, but swift and positive changes are not in the offing, either. The United States is in the greater Middle East for the long haul.”

Mr Gromov and Mr Rogozin gave a starker warning. “Officials in Brussels and Washington who are thinking of a rapid exit strategy for the ISAF mission are engaged in elaborating on a suicide plan. Withdrawal without victory might cause a political collapse of Western security structures.” Russia was training a rapid reaction force, made up of élite units from Russia and its Central Asian allies, “in case of a NATO fiasco”.

“We know all too well what happens to unions that become meaningless. The war in Afghanistan was one of the major factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union,” they added.

<em>Picture: Spencer Smith</em>

Picture: Spencer Smith

Ed Roberts, the inspiration for the modern computing industry, has died aged 68. Although his name is virtually unknown outside rarefied world of technology specialists, his passing has attracted fulsome praise particularly from Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

In a statement they said: “Ed was willing to take a chance on us – two young guys interested in computers long before they were commonplace – and we have always been grateful to him. The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things.”

For many years, however, that gratitude was not shared. Gates and Allen had rented an office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in order to be next to Roberts’ company Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS). It was here in 1975, after developing one of the early electronic calculators, he and his colleagues made the Altair 8800 which sparked the whole personal computer revolution.

To an outsider it was hard to see how anybody could get excited about the Altair. It had no monitor or keyboard, it was just a box with a few lights and switches. You also had to build it yourself from a mail-order kit which cost $395 (about £1000 at today’s prices). But after it featured on the front cover of Popular Electronics magazine the company was swamped with orders from techies thrilled at the prospect of getting hold of the world’s first affordable minicomputer.

Gates and Allen set up their company Micro-Soft, as it was then, to work on their version of the Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (Basic) software to run on the Altair. “We will always have many fond memories of working with Ed in Albuquerque, in the MITS office right on Route 66 – where so many exciting things happened that none of us could have imagined back then,” they said in their statement.

Roberts’ memories were perhaps a little less fond. In a 1985 interview in Computers & Electronics (as Popular Electronics was then known) he was asked if he would have done anything differently. “Probably the single biggest mistake was to build Microsoft at MITS instead of building our own internal software capability. I thought we were building a software capability, but it turned out we were building Microsoft,” he said.

The DigiBarn computer museum has several pages dedicated to Roberts and MITS here. He also has a full biography in Wikipedia.

In 1977, two years after the launch of the Altair, Roberts became fed up with his management role. So he sold MITS and moved to rural Georgia. In 1982, at the unusually old age of 40, he became a medical student and went on to become a country doctor, a job he continued for the rest of his life. He also continued his interest in computing and eventually made his peace with Gates and Allen.

Dr Henry Edward Roberts, born 13 September 1941 in Miami, Florida; died 1 April 2010 of pneumonia in Georgia.