Scots have reason for hope
December 2, 2008
Scotland coach Frank Hadden poses with his RWC'11 Pool B rivals - Argentina captain Felipe Contepomi and England team manager Martin Johnson © Getty Images
About the only time that Scottish rugby takes a break from gazing at its own navel is when the country partakes in one of its regular civil wars so it is with some trepidation that your correspondent has to report that peace and harmony, or the nearest that Scottish rugby will ever come to that sublime state, has broken out north of the border.
At first glance it may not be obvious why, after all one win from three in the autumn series was only what was expected and the Scots remain stuck in 9th place in the IRB rankings and so in the third group of Rugby World Cup seeds for the first time ever. But scratch the surface a little and, while it would be an exaggeration to say that the garden is blooming, things are a little rosier than they might have been.
First off that Rugby World Cup draw paired the Scots with Argentina and England, or put another way, the weaker of the first group of seeds and the weakest of the second group. A lot can happen between now and 2011 and it probably will. Martin Johnson will put the frighteners on his England boys and Argentina still boast three of the best backs in the world (Corletto, Contepomi and Hernandez) but both teams are beatable. Come to think of it Scotland beat both England and Argentina the last time they faced them which only goes to prove the point.
Scotland is only one of five countries to make the quarter-finals of every Rugby World Cup and, while it won't be easy to repeat the feat in New Zealand, it isn't impossible either.
Moreover the Scots have some very decent players who announced their arrival on the world stage against South Africa. It was almost as if they were aware that Lions coach Ian McGeechan would be paying pretty strict attention to what was going on against next summer's opponents and several Scots did their chances of a trip to South Africa no harm at all. The Scots should have beaten the World Champions as four penalty kicks, one of them was the rugby equivalent of a "gimmie", went sailing wide of the posts.
The giant Scottish forwards held and, for long periods, dominated their illustrious opponents. Tight-head prop Euan Murray went one better and destroyed the man known, even on the Springboks' website, as "the Beast" and the bulky hooker Ross Ford helped him do it. Both men will tour next June.
Aussie lock Nathan Hines will come into consideration for a place in the second row and Mike Blair has look of the first choice scrum-half especially as the hard grounds will suite this top-of-the-ground player. John Barclay and Simon Taylor should have a shout of making the touring party. All this after one Welsh prop, I'll save his blushes by not naming him, suggested a few months back that no Scot would come close to a Lions test team…perhaps he meant no Englishman?
The Lions trip will probably come too soon for some Scottish backs but at last coach Frank Hadden has some bullets to fire out wide. The centre pairing of Ben Cairns and Nick De Luca could be around for years to come and Graham Morrison is still to come into the equation. Max Evans has joined his brother Thom as an international and both men provide enough speed to keep even Jeremy Clarkson happy. Two Lamont brothers bring physicality and some experience and Hugo Southwell, Chris Paterson and Nikki Walker are all more than handy as back up.
So what could possibly go wrong? Well, for one thing the Scots could copy the worst of England's mistakes by thinking that a feisty front row will win them Test matches on their own because it rarely happens. England invested way too much emotional capital in Andrew Sheridan after the big man destroyed the Wallaby scrum back in 2005 but the Scots had better not make the same mistake with Euan Murray because the Wallabies have worked Sheridan out now.
Hadden also has an obsession with size as he fields one of the biggest lock combos in world rugby. Hines and Jim Hamilton are too similar in size and what the Scots gain at the scrum they lose in the lineout….especially the defensive lineout. Mobility is required and with Jason White now looking too slow for the third row of the scrum it might be worth looking at the Sale Shark again in the second row. Ally Hogg is too good to drop and where to play him is the problem? He offers more in attack than Alasdair Strokosch but less in defence.
The real point of all this head scratching is that Hadden and Scotland now have options almost everywhere on the field. The Scotland starting team is no longer selected by injuries and availability but by who is playing well at the time (or what the ground conditions are, or who the opposition is fielding) and that, however modest an achievement it may be, feels like a pretty good place for the Scots to be right now.
But after posting just one win in each of the last two Six Nations the fragile truce in Scottish rugby will depend on some further signs of success in the upcoming championship.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September