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Nathan Hines

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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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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Richie Gray, Scotland versus France <em>Picture: AP Photo/Michel Spingler</em>

Richie Gray, Scotland versus France Picture: AP Photo/Michel Spingler

After Nikki Walker had done his best traffic-policeman act and waved Andrea Massi through for Italy’s first-half try at Murrayfield yesterday, a friend turned to me and suggested that the Ospreys winger shouldn’t play for Scotland again, ever – particularly as this error was a virtual repeat of a similar offence against Wales.

“Ah, but you wait,” I replied. “He’ll score the match-winning try. Bound to.” And that is exactly what happened.

Walker’s inconsistency represents something of template for Scotland’s problems. He took some really good lines yesterday and ran hard and straight through gaps, causing the Italian defence so many difficulties that his try was almost inevitable.

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But his defence was also woeful, not just once but on many occasions. Massi’s try was just the one time that Italy managed to take advantage of Walker’s profligacy. Time and again in the first half the Italians targeted the soft right-hand side of the Scottish line, because they knew that Walker would either be out of position or he would hesitate over which man to mark and would allow the opposition to make line-breaks.

Now consider how Scotland have been this season – maddeningly inconsistent. They attacked with real purpose and skill in Paris, scoring more tries at the Stade de France than they have since 1999, but their defence was all over the place.

Scotland also played better at Twickenham than they have for years, staying in the hunt for an unlikely victory until the final quarter and only then being beaten on penalties, drawing the try-count one-all.

They were good, too, in patches, against the Italians yesterday – and if we took those three games, the French, the English and the Italian matches, all three were pretty much what we hoped from Scotland before this tournament started: combative and close defeats to the big guns away from home and a solid victory over the Italians at home.

The real aberrations came in the Welsh and Irish games. These were at Murrayfield, yet Scotland failed to score a single try and lost both games. The nadir was reached in the Welsh match when the Welsh were reduced to 13 men and still Scotland couldn’t fashion a try.

The end result of four losses and one win was not what was expected of a side which had beaten the Springboks in the autumn, the Australians the autumn before that and had beaten Argentina 2–0 away from home last summer – but it represents a fair reflection of Scotland’s standing in the game and the way the team played.

The first, biggest and most surprising area of failure was the set scrum. The Scottish scrum was dismantled wholesale by the French, a development which arguably handed the game to the home side. It struggled again against the Welsh and Irish scrums – which was even more worrying because Scotland should have at least secured parity if not outright dominance up front against these two sides – and it was under tremendous pressure against the English.

Only in yesterday’s game against a pack which was supposedly one of the best in the championship did Scotland look anything like being on top.

By the time Scotland took the field against the Italians, Andy Robinson was on his third-choice tighthead prop. Euan Murray started against France and Wales, Moray Low started against England and Ireland and both props struggled. Geoff Cross, who started against Italy, seemed to perform the best of all, which is worrying for Murray and also for Low, neither of whom can now guarantee their place on the plane to New Zealand for the World Cup.

Then there was the line-out, another supposed area of strength for Scotland. The line-out collapsed against England but was brilliant yesterday against Italy. The difference was that Scotland’s problems against England all came from Ross Ford’s poor throwing-in, and the Italy game showcased just what exceptional snaffling locks Richie Gray and Al Kellock have become on opposition ball.

Given that Scotland seemed able to win opposition ball at will but still have problems on their own throw, it was a wonder that they did not choose to kick the ball out more often yesterday.

This, though, was the not the game plan executed by Ruaridh Jackson at no.10. Jackson kicked frequently yesterday, and more frequently than he really should have. For the first ten minutes, Scotland ran everything and looked a really good and dangerous team. Twice they came within a whisker of scoring tries and had to settle for penalty kicks at goal instead.

Then, as the game settled down, Scotland started kicking the ball back to the Italians, giving their opponents the opportunity to run the ball back – and, in doing so, they let the Italians back in the game.

This, in essence, has been Scotland’s problem all through this championship. They have kicked too often, too poorly and, in doing so, they have surrendered hard-won possession too easily.

Jackson’s kicking in the Ireland game marked the worst of this tendency, but Dan Parks was also at fault in this regard when he has been on the pitch.

Yesterday’s win was gratifying and deserved but it did leave many supporters with the feeling of frustration. If only Scotland had got the win in early and created the sort of momentum which is vital to any successful Six Nations campaign.

Nick de Luca and Walker took their tries well. Nathan Hines off-loaded well to set up de Luca for the try, although he still does not totally impress as a no.6 – some of his tackling was a little wayward and off the pace yesterday.

Sean Lamont was as good as ever in attack and defence, and although he is learning to offload better, that is still not the best part of his game.

Chris Paterson is back to his defensive best, and while he does not have the pace he used to have to stretch defences, he works so well with Jackson as an alternative stand-off half that he should be considered the first-choice full-back for the World Cup (particularly as Hugo Southwell was so dire in the Welsh game that he doesn’t really deserve another chance).

Four losses from five games is not the return anyone north of the border wanted, and few expected. There is no getting away from the fact that this has, yet again, been a poor campaign. Tries are still at a premium, particularly at home, which in itself reveals a worrying lack of cutting edge.

But there are positives. The side is now considerably better than it was at the start of the championship. Cross is the best tight-head we have available. Richie Gray emerged as the best new forward in the whole tournament (possibly vying with Ireland’s Sean O’Brien for that honour), while, in Jackson, Scotland may have unearthed the man who will control the games in the World Cup from no.10.

But there are still players who have to prove they can step up to the mark, foremost among them Ross Ford. The Edinburgh man has been groomed and shaped to be Scotland’s first-choice hooker for so long that it seems inconceivable that he would be dropped. But unless he improves his throwing in, he will have to be replaced by someone who can hit his jumpers – every time.

There is also a worrying lack of pace on the wings. Without Max Evans, as was the case yesterday, and with Simon Danielli on one wing and Walker on the other, Scotland lacked the sort of pace that will be needed to take advantage of line-breaks against the very best defences in world rugby.

Overall, though, Robinson will head into the World Cup warm-up games with a better idea of who his best performers are – but aware that once again, as a whole, the team have failed to meet expectations.

He knows, and they know, they can’t afford to do that again. If they do that in New Zealand, they will be on an early flight home and Scotland’s proud record of qualifying for the quarter-finals of every World Cup will have gone.

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Sean Lamont

Sean Lamont

The news that three of his backs are unavailable for Sunday’s must-win game against Ireland has turned an already complex selection decision into an extremely difficult one for Scotland coach Andy Robinson.

Robinson has just lost outside centre Jo Ansbro and fullbacks Hugo Southwell and Rory Lamont to injury.

Of these, only Southwell’s would have been a blessing in disguise. The Stade Francais fullback played so dreadfully against Wales that he would have been lucky to make it into the 22, let alone the starting 15 for the match against Ireland.

But after that, it starts to get very tricky for Robinson. Southwell’s likely replacement would have been Rory Lamont but the Toulon fullback was injured last weekend against Agen, leaving the Scotland coach with a dilemma.

Robinson has made it clear he is a fan of the big Bath fullback Jack Cuthbert. Cuthbert, though, is uncapped and untested. The Irish would be certain to try to exploit that and he would have to cope with a barrage of high balls and attendant Irish tackles if he was picked for the first time for Sunday’s game.

If not Cuthbert then, it is likely to be Chris Paterson – a selection which appeared more likely this afternoon when Paterson was left out of Edinburgh’s squad for this week’s match against the Scarlets.

Robinson has not shown a huge amount of faith in Scotland’s record cap holder since he became coach and it is undoubtedly true that Paterson is certainly not the treat he once was. He is also decidedly lightweight as a fullback.

But picking Paterson would gives Robinson other options, options the coach should exploit for Sunday’s game. If Paterson is picked, then he would take over the goalkicking from the fly half (Dan Parks or Ruaridh Jackson).

One of the worries Robinson has had in picking Jackson is that he can be a bit wayward from the tee. Picking Paterson would solve that problem. Paterson could take all the kicks, from the tee and from hand to touch, leaving Jackson to do what he does best – run the back line. Not only that, but Paterson could slot into the fly half role if Jackson was injured.

If Robinson goes for Jackson and Paterson, therefore, Scotland would be covered in all departments: a running and speedy fly half, a superb goalkicking fullback and a substitute fly half too. They would also have a fly half who threatens the opposition back line and takes the ball flat, neither of which Parks does with any authority.

Paterson has been on the wrong side of the Scotland squad since the Six Nations started which suggested that the Edinburgh fullback was edging away from the side just when World Cup preparations are starting to be made. Now, though, he might have the chance to play himself back into the reckoning – as part of a double act with Jackson.

That would mean axing Parks from the squad with the World Cup round the corner? Would Robinson be brave enough to do that? We’ll see …

That, though, is only part of the problem. Graeme Morrison, Robinson’s preferred inside centre, is out injured. First-choice outside centre, Ansbro, is also now out. Nick de Luca has been so ineffectual at inside centre in the first two games that Robinson sent him back to Edinburgh last week – as clear a sign as there can be that De Luca was being discarded ahead of the Irish game.

Who to pick? Sean Lamont? Lamont was certainly Scotland’s best player against Wales and has to start against Ireland. But, for all his power going forward and his strength in defence, passing is not Lamont’s strong point (remember the chance he butchered against Wales in Cardiff last year?)

He has played outside centre for the Scarlets but his best position remains on the wing.

One consideration Robinson will certainly have to have, though, is that somebody has to mark Brian O’Driscoll. Lamont may not be the best passer of the ball but, as he showed against Wales, he will tackle and tackle again until he collapses so he may well start at 13.

Max Evans is the best outside centre Scotland have available but Robinson has been trying to convert him into a wing and while he may consider bringing him back to the 13 shirt against Ireland, the chances are that he will keep him outside to continue his development as a winger.

That still leaves the inside centre position. Robinson may have been prepared to ditch De Luca before the injuries struck. Now, though, he may have to give him one more chance, if only because he has little option. The only other possibilities are Alex Grove (who has not been part of the squad this year so would take time to get up to speed) and Ben Cairns, who has also been allowed to play for Edinburgh this week which means he is not being considered either.

The changes in the pack are, however, easier to define. Tighthead Euan Murray has opted out because the game is on a Sunday (but he might have lost his place anyway) and will be replaced by Glasgow prop Moray Low.

Richie Gray will come into the second row in place of Nathan Hines, who should drop to the bench where he can cover both the second and back rows and Johnnie Beattie will probably return in place of Richie Vernon at number eight.

The side that Robinson may well pick, if he is being conservative, would be as follows: Jacobsen, Ford, Low, Gray, Kellock, Barclay, Brown, Beattie, Rory Lawson, Parks, De Luca, Lamont, Evans, Walker, Paterson; subs – Welsh, Scott Lawson, Hines, Rennie, Blair, Cuthbert.

The team he should pick, though, if he is feeling more adventurous, would be: Jacobsen, Ford, Low, Gray, Kellock, Barclay, Brown, Beattie, Blair, Jackson, De Luca, Evans, Lamont, Walker, Paterson; Subs: Welsh, Fergus Thompson, Hines, Rennie, Rory Lawson, Jim Thompson.

One criticism that has been levelled at Robinson in the past is that he is an excellent coach but a poor selector. This would be as good a time as any to prove those critics wrong.

Ritchie Vernon against the All Blacks

Ritchie Vernon against the All Blacks

IF anyone at the Scottish Rugby Union wonders why they can’t sell all the seats at Murrayfield these days they should consider one simple fact: tomorrow marks exactly fifteen months since the last Scottish try in a competitive match at Murrayfield.

Scotland failed to score a try in the two Murrayfield games last autumn (against South Africa and New Zealand). They failed to score at home in last year’s Six Nations against France and England and failed to do so again yesterday against Wales.

Yes, Scotland scored a bundle of tries in a run-around game against Japan B last summer and they have scored, in Aberdeen, against Samoa but at Murrayfield the record is dire. You have to go back to the Fiji game on 14th November 2009 – fifteen months ago – for the last Scottish try in a meaningful game at the home of Scottish rugby.

Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s fans camped out to get their hands on precious and highly prized  Murrayfield tickets. Now, the SRU can’t sell all the tickets for a Six Nations game with Wales – despite the Welsh bringing 15,000 to 20,000 fans with them.

After last week, many of us thought the corner had been turned. Those three tries in Paris suggested that Scotland had, at last, lost that white-line fever. But no. Back at Murrayfield yesterday, it was the same, depressing, old story.

Scotland’s play was certainly feckless, error strewn and shoddy yesterday but it was worse than that in one key aspect: Scotland somehow contrived not to score a try when their opponents were down to 13 players.

Rugby statisticians like to tout the figure of seven points as the average a team scores when their opponents are reduced to 14 men. With Wales down to 13, Scotland should have scored two converted tries but they only came away with three points.

Remember what happened when Scotland were reduced to 13 men last year in Cardiff? Wales tore Scotland apart in two minutes and won a game they should have lost.

All credit to the Welsh defence to hold out during that desperate passage yesterday but Scotland should have buried Wales then. Any half decent team would have done that but Scotland? Not a chance.

So what’s the problem and how does Andy Robinson fix it?

The key is decision making and that, generally, lies with the half backs. Dan Parks may have had some great games in last year’s Six Nations but yesterday’s was one of his worst. It was almost back the bad old days when he used to get booed off at Murrayfield every time he was substituted.

When Parks has a bad day, as he did yesterday, he makes it easy for the opposition simply because he is, and never has been, a threat with the ball in hand. Rory Lawson, Robinson’s first-choice scrum half, makes this problem worse because he hardly ever makes a break round the fringes of a ruck.

If the opposition know that there is virtually no threat from the scrum half or the fly half, all they have to do is fan out, defend the wide channels and smash the centres every time they get the ball – which is what Wales did yesterday.

What Parks can do is kick yet his decision-making in this area was also wrong yesterday. When Wales were down to 13, they were forced to bring their centre Jonathan Davies in to the scrum on their line. That meant Wales were two short in their back line (fullback Lee Byrne having been sent to the sinbin). All Scotland needed to do was keep the ball in hand to force at least one overlap, or even two yet Parks decided on a cross-field kick to the corner, where it was one against one – and Scotland failed to score.

But Parks wasn’t the only one to have a bad game. Hugo Southwell at full back had by far his worst game in a Scotland jersey – and he was only on the pitch for 20 minutes. Three times he received the ball and three times he kicked it out on the full, conceding both possession and territory to Wales.

And that, in essence, was where Scotland lost this game. Scottish players barely touched the ball for the first 20 minutes. Every time they got it, they booted it back to the Welsh who ran through phase after phase after phase until Scotland were pinged by the referee and James Hook slotted the points.

Scotland weren’t killed off by that first Shane Williams try, they were killed off by the three subsequent penalties which gave the Welsh a 16-0 lead.

Southwell also charged recklessly into Byrne while he was in the air and should have been sinbinned. It was at least a reward for Scotland, of sorts, that he was then replaced by Sean Lamont, Southwell having been injured in that stupid and dangerous tackle.

Lamont then became Scotland’s best player simply because he refused to kick the ball back at the Welsh. He decided to run it, time and again and his try-saving tackle on Jamie Roberts late on in the game was a reminder of just how committed, gutsy and passionate he is. If only Scotland had another 14 Sean Lamonts, then maybe they could have done something yesterday.

Nikki Walker was also appalling. It was his lost possession that led to Wales’ second try and the sight of him lolloping back slowly while his opposite number dotted the ball down over the Scotland line should surely be enough to have him banished from Scotland’s ranks for ever.

What can Robinson do? Change the team for a start. He has to have a scrum half who can threaten and keep opposition back rows honest. In the continuing absence of Chris Cusiter, that means opting for Mike Blair and telling him to break as often and as quickly as possible. He can still do it as anyone who saw Edinburgh’s home match with Northampton last year can testify.

As this season’s Six Nations is now over for Scotland, Robinson should also go for Ruaridh Jackson at fly half. He can’t kick as well as Parks and he is a relative novice at marshalling a backline but he has great acceleration and would offer the threat from ten that we have been lacking ever since Gregor Townsend retired. Putting Duncan Weir on the bench too as cover for Jackson would be a radical but inspiring choice.

The centres were ineffective yesterday but principally because of the problems at nine and ten so they should probably be given another chance. The back three needs a shake up, though. Sean Lamont has to come in on one wing and his brother, who is playing well at 15 for Toulon, should come in at full back in place of Southwell. Max Evans did more than enough to retain his spot on the other wing.

In the pack, Euan Murray will not be playing against Ireland because the match is on a Sunday but he would have been lucky to keep his place anyway. Moray Low did a very good job when he came on so should retain the shirt for the Ireland game.

Richie Vernon did well at number eight but it may be worth reverting to the balance of the ‘killer bs’ and uniting Johnnie Beattie, John Barclay and Kelly Brown once again. Nathan Hines was alright yesterday but how Scotland missed Richie Gray who must surely return next time.

If Scotland want to know how to score tries, they could do worse than watch the England Italy game yesterday. Yes, the Italian defence was woeful at times but some of the English tries were excellent. Every time a player broke through, he knew he had support both left and right – which is how the All Blacks play the game. England also used interesting training ground moves to shift the point of attack. Mark Cueto’s first-half try was a classic example.

The scrum half looped round the hooker and deliver the ball to Flood who was now in the inside centre channel. Flood then popped the ball inside again, this time for the winger coming through. Every time Scotland used the inside ball, it was popped up by Parks to a receiver close to the ruck, which is relatively easy to both see and counter. Moving it one more step away makes is harder to defend.

The upshot is that England make scoring tries look easy. Scotland make it look incredibly difficult and although the ticket prices for Twickenham are much higher than they are at Murrayfield, at least the English paying punters are getting their money’s worth. England scored eight tries yesterday. It currently takes Scotland a year to score eight tries and none of them are at home. Scottish supporters have been short-changed for the past year and a half and it is time we got something for our money.

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Richie Vernon

Richie Vernon

“Money won is twice as sweet as money earned,” is the claim and, with that in mind, I took my winnings from Scotland’s victory over South Africa in the autumn and whacked a tenner of it back on Scotland again, this time to win the Six Nations.

A uselessly wasteful patriotic bet? Some would see it as such. Indeed I learned some time ago not to put money on Scotland for the Six Nations because I always ended up disappointed.

A good autumn would get hopes rising only for the team to dash them during the first 80 minutes of the spring. After handing too much easy money to the bookies over the years I decided to stop being so stupid.

So why change my mind this year? Five reasons: Andy Robinson, the fixture list, Scotland’s recent record, our Six Nations opponents and the team itself.

1. The Andy Robinson factor is straightforward. He is a really, really good coach. You only have to listen to what the players say about him. If, as seems generally accepted, the difference between winning and losing at elite sport is measured in millimetres, then it is vital to have a coach who can secure that extra advantage, that edge of analysis, of interpretation, of motivation.

In Robinson, Scotland have one of the best in the game. Look what he did to Edinburgh during his short period in charge (success) and look at what happened to Edinburgh as soon as he left (failure). He has a gift and long may he stay at Murrayfield.

2. The fixture list is in Scotland’s favour. First, Scotland have three home games this season, all of which are eminently winnable. Four wins could be enough for the championship (as long as nobody else wins the Grand Slam) – so, if those three home games are won, all Scotland need to do is win one away match to be in the mix for the championship.

3. As for Scotland’s recent record, two wins out of three in the autumn (Samoa and South Africa), two from two in the summer away to Argentina and, in last year’s Six Nations, Scotland finished with a win, away in Dublin, drew with England and should have beaten Wales in that extraordinary, almost farcical game in Cardiff.

That’s five wins out of the last six games, including three away wins. Now compare that to Wales’ recent record: played four won none in the autumn, played three lost three in the summer and played five won two (including that Scotland game) in last year’s Six Nations.

4. Wales haven’t won in their last seven games and will have to play very, very well to overcome England on Friday night.

What about Ireland? They won two and lost two in the autumn but lost the three games before that, including their last game at Croke Park, against Scotland.

It won’t be easy to beat Ireland and Wales at Murrayfield (or even Italy for that matter) but, given the recent track records of each of the sides, Scotland have a better chance this year than for many years. Indeed, anything less than three home wins will be a disappointment for this Scotland side.

That leaves the two away games, starting with France in Paris this Saturday and then the mid-March game at Twickenham. Scotland do not have a good record at either venue. Scotland won in Paris in 1995 and 1999, on both occasions playing wonderful attacking rugby. But that is it. Two wins in Paris since the 1960s says it all.

If anything, Scotland’s record at Twickenham is even worse. You have to go back to the days of Jim Calder and John Rutherford and Jim Renwick in 1983 for Scotland’s last triumph at English rugby headquarters.

But, if you have to play the French at all, it is often best to get them at the start of a competition like the Six Nations because, if they have a fault, it is being slow starters. There is also a degree of arrogance (rightly so, one may say given their position as reigning Six Nations champions) about the French which suggests that they might take Scotland as seriously as they would, say, the English.

So, if there is a chance of winning an away game this year, it is probably the first game, away in Paris on Saturday. If Scotland can scrape a win, the team can look forward to three home games – all of which are winnable – and a difficult away fixture at Twickenham.

5. It all comes down, then, to the players and the tactics. Robinson has decided that the France game will be won and lost up front, so he has picked a big, powerful forward pack. It is full of characters who will not be intimidated – players like Nathan Hines, Alan Jacobson, Al Kellock and Euan Murray.

With Dan Parks playing at ten, the game plan is clear. The pack will look to dominate up front and Parks will play for position, kicking to the corners and keeping the ball in the French half. Only then, after five, six or seven phases, will the ball be spun to the backs.

It is a sensible strategy for an away game, any away game in the Six Nations, and it shows that Robinson’s priority is to win, whatever it takes.

The problem, as it has been for years, is Scotland’s inability to score tries. Even in defeat, the Welsh always seem to be able to score, but Scotland just can’t do it. There has been a feeling around the Scotland camp that the tries are there, that they will come as long as the team keep plugging away.

With my tenner resting on it – I hope temporarily until it can be returned to me with several others – I really do believe that this would be as good a time as any to prove that theory correct.

The coach is in place, the fixture list is in Scotland’s favour, our opponents are not as good as they have been and Scotland have a team to dominate up front. A uselessly wasted patriotic bet? Maybe aye: but maybe no…

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Richie Gray wins the ballScotland coach Andy Robinson has just announced his team to play France on Saturday. He decided to pick a big, powerful pack with lock Nathan Hines moving to the back row in an attempt to record Scotland’s first win in Paris for 12 years.

He has also shaken up the backs, with a new centre partnership in Nick De Luca at 12 and Joe Ansbro at 13 as he tries to unearth the tries that Scotland have found so hard to come by in the last few years.

The result is a strong pack with relatively light-weight but speedy backs, orchestrated by Dan Parks at fly half. Rory Lawson is preferred to Mike Blair at scrum half and there is no place yet for Johnnie Beattie with the Glasgow number eight not considered match-fit enough to return straight into the Scotland side from injury.

The result is three personnel changes and two further changes in position from the side that started against Samoa in Aberdeen in the autumn.

De Luca replaces the injured Graeme Morrison at inside centre, Max Evans moves out to the wing, replacing Sean Lamont and making way for Ansbro at outside centre and the Glasgow lock pair of captain Al Kellock and Richie Gray are installed, with Hines moving to six.

Kelly Brown, normally a flanker, is moved to number eight because of Beattie’s continued absence from the side. Gray and Ansbro will make their first championship starts in the match away to France in Paris on Saturday.

Robinson said: “International rugby is about maintaining forward momentum and, as test matches go, France in the cauldron of Stade de France will be a stern examination.

“I’ve remarked before that Scotland have produced some stirring one-off victories in the championship in the recent past and that what we need to do is produce winning performances consistently.

“We showed last year that that could be achieved following up our win against Ireland with our tour results in Argentina, though we know that we must be 100 per cent on our top game for that aim to be realised.”

Scotland team (sponsor Murray) to play France in the RBS 6 Nations Championship at Stade de France, Paris on Saturday 5 February, kick-off 5pm GMT
15 Hugo Southwell (Stade Francais) 57 caps, 8 tries, 40 points
14 Nikki Walker (Ospreys) 18 caps, 5 tries, 25 points
13 Joe Ansbro (Northampton Saints) 2 caps
12 Nick De Luca (Edinburgh) 19 caps
11 Max Evans (Glasgow Warriors) 15 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
10 Dan Parks (Cardiff Blues) 56 caps, 4 tries, 11 conversions, 42 penalties, 13 drop-goals, 207 points
9 Rory Lawson (Gloucester) 22 caps
1 Allan Jacobsen (Edinburgh) 50 caps
2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh) 43 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
3 Euan Murray (Northampton Saints) 35 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
4 Richie Gray (Glasgow Warriors) 6 caps
5 Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors) CAPTAIN 27 caps
6 Nathan Hines (Leinster) 67 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
8 Kelly Brown (Saracens) 40 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
7 John Barclay (Glasgow Warriors) 23 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
16 Dougie Hall (Glasgow Warriors) 33 caps, 1 try, 5 points
17 Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors) 10 caps
18 Richie Vernon (Glasgow Warriors) 6 caps
19 Ross Rennie (Edinburgh) 4 caps
20 Mike Blair (Edinburgh) 66 caps, 5 tries, 25 points
21 Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors) 2 caps, 1 penalty, 3 points
22 Sean Lamont (Scarlets) 50 caps, 7 tries, 35 points

Scotland rugby logoIN the clichéd parlance of television commentators, it was a “game for the purists”. For those Scottish supporters who were at the soaking slug-fest of the Scotland South Africa game on Saturday, however, it didn’t really matter how it was done, what was important was that Scotland won.

Almost all of the 35,000 who turned up at Murrayfield on Saturday had also been there the week before when Scotland were taken to pieces by the All Blacks. The Springbok game was, therefore, a chance to restore pride, to convince everybody involved that the New Zealand game was an unfortunate and uncomfortable blip.

Scotland did win, beating South Africa by 21-17 in another grinding, no-try, all-kick victory that owed more to guts, tenacity and disciplined defence than to any attacking flair.

The rain poured down, the Springboks played limited, bash-em-up-front rugby and, when that didn’t work they played bash-em-up-front rugby again.

The result was a slow battle of attrition with mistakes on both sides. Lineouts were lost, scrums collapsed again and again, balls were knocked on and passes missed.

Cynics might say that Scotland brought the Springboks down to their level and while there is a kernel of truth in there somewhere, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, Scotland played a similar, limited game to the Spirngboks (the conditions were so bad that it was difficult to do anything else) but the simple reality was that Scotland were not just equal to the Springboks but they beat them at their own game.

In some ways it was similar to the Calcutta Cup game in the rain of 2000, the victory over the Springboks in 2002 and even the defeat of Australia last November. All were tough, hard-fought victories achieved with little or no attacking spark but built on tremendous defence.

Scotland have, therefore, been here before. The question now, though, as ever, is whether Scotland can actually build on this result, get the confidence they need to start playing well and actually score some tries.

It is all very well beating better teams occasionally with resolute defence but it is not going to work in the long-term unless Scotland can start scoring tries as well as merely stopping their opponents from scoring.

This victory was built on superb work by the forwards. All of them, including the substitutes, played immensely. John Barclay, the openside flanker, was given the man-of-the-match award but it could easily have gone to prop Allan Jacobsen, lock Richie Gray, flanker-lock Nathan Hines or substitute number eight Richie Vernon.

The problem – and it is becoming an acute one for Scotland – lies behind the scrum. The backs are all good defenders and solid runners but they rarely threaten to cross the opposition try line.

Scotland scored no tries against South Africa yesterday. They scored no tries against Australia or Argentina at home last year, nor against England or France at home in last year’s Six Nations.

Scottish supporters may have cheered their team to the rafters for winning on Saturday but how more would everyone there love to cheer a Scottish try? They are becoming very, very scarce. Indeed, you have to go back more than a year, to the match against Fiji, to enjoy Scotland scoring a try at home in a proper international match.

That is why Scotland still fail to convince – however praiseworthy Saturday’s victory was. That might also explain why only 35,000 people turned out to see Scotland play the world champions.

So, if the problem is scoring tries, what is the answer? It lies in two areas. First, the players already in the Scotland XV have to be better at reading the game and supporting the man who makes a break.

Several times on Saturday, Scottish players broke through the South African defences and were brought to ground without being able to find anybody to off-load the ball to.

Sean Lamont and Joe Ansbro in the first half and Richie Vernon (to most memorable effect) in the second half all broke through and looked left and right in vain for supporting runners. Consider now how New Zealand break. When one man gets through the first line of defence, they don’t need to look left and right, they just flick the ball out either way knowing a support runner will be there.

The lesson is simple: get through the first line of defence and, with good support, it is very easy to break the second line and score.

But the other issue for Scotland is personnel. We just don’t seem to have the players like England’s Chris Ashton who can light up a game with the sort-of 80-yard try he scored against Australia last week.

Lamont used to have that pace but he hasn’t shown that threat for the last two or three years. Southwell is a solid defending full back but he doesn’t have the pace to trouble the major rugby powers either. Where is Scotland’s George North?

Andy Robinson has turned Scotland into a cussed, hard-to-beat side which has now got its confidence back and could be on the cusp of some very significant results.

On the optimistic side, it could be that this win is all the team needs to have the confidence to play that 5 to ten per cent better, particularly in attack, which will turn those breaks into tries. Then, maybe, Scotland could start winning consistently.

There were some of us who put money on Scotland to win on Saturday at the unbelievably generous odds of 11/2 offered by those charitable souls at Ladbrokes and I, for one , will enjoy picking up my winnings on Monday morning.

All of us know it is unusual (very unusual) to win money on Scotland but there is a chance that this victory might be the start of something more significant, and something which might result in further profitable trips to the bookies over the coming months.

Have a look at the Six Nations fixture list. Scotland have three games at home, all of which could and should be won (Wales, Ireland and Italy). Scotland start away to France which is always difficult but, if you have to play France away, playing them first is probably the best time to get them.

If Scotland can sneak a result away in Paris, which is definitely possible given this weekend’s performance, and then take those three home games, that might be enough to win the championship. It might have to be enough given that the other game is away at Twickenham and England are starting to look good, very good.

But it will all depend on turning those breaks into tries. Saturday’s result was magnificent. It was re-affirming, it was much needed and it was thoroughly deserved. However, to turn it into a consistent run, Scotland will need to start scoring tries because other teams will not play as poorly, as negatively and as lacking in imagination as South Africa did on Saturday.

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