Picking on the small guy
February 25, 2009
Scotland boss Frank Hadden will be all out of excuses if his side lose to Italy on Saturday © Getty Images
Four years ago Matty Williams' Scotland team bored Italy into submission at Murrayfield in what was one of the least memorable Test matches of all time. Chris Paterson kicked…oh forget it, I did and so did everyone else who was there; it was a form of survival strategy. If that was the best way Scotland could win perhaps we should stick to being valiant losers after all; fans lost the will to live after enduring that turgid 80 minutes and Williams lost his job.
The truth is that rugby union entered the world of entertainment the day it started paying players and now it has some frightening competition. The Super 14 sides seem to be playing what is almost a different game altogether than the one we have been watching…high tempo, ball in hand rugby with outstanding intensity and skills.
Meanwhile the Heineken Cup is looming large in the rear view mirror and there is a danger that the poor old Six Nations will go the way of its football equivalent unless it starts serving up some better fare that we have been offered to date. Of the six matches played to date only two have been any good (Ireland/France and Wales/England) and with what looks like the two worst teams in the contest competing on Saturday at Murrayfield no one is holding their breath in expectation of a classic.
The current Scotland boss Frank Hadden is often berated for his array of excuses that would put Bart Simpson to shame and sure enough he grabbed a couple off the shelf last Saturday, dusted them down and presented them to the media. His first beef was with France's solitary try "dubious" was how he put it and he went on to claim "and we had a perfectly good try disallowed".
Hadden was referring to the moment that Allan Jacobsen tackled the French scrum-half behind the line and Kelly Brown dived onto the ball. We might even have swallowed Hadden's line except that the Irish referee George Clancy can be clearly heard on the video tape telling the Scotland prop "back!…back!" which suggests that at least one person in Stade de France reckoned Jacobsen was offside and he is the only person that matters.
For all that Hadden has a point, rather than smile upon the Scots the Fates have spat in their eye. Twice in the last two years TMOs have ruled against the men in blue when Johnny Wilkinson and Shane Williams were clearly in touch. Last Saturday there was a genuine belief that the French try involved a forward pass to the eventual scorer Fulgence Ouedraogo. So the question is why do the Scots always seem to get the smelly end of the stick?
Well, in a nutshell, because that's life, or rather, that's human nature. In the jungle of top level professional sport only the strong thrive while the weak are squashed even by the men in the middle. How many penalties do the opposition get awarded at Old Trafford? How many LBW decisions do the visiting side win in Delhi? How many times does Richie McCaw get away with murder simply because of who he is? The same song is sung the world over, match officials referee want they expect as much as what they see.
Last Saturday the officials, completely neutral, unbiased and thoroughly professional though they were, expected France to beat Scotland in Paris and they did, helped by at least one highly questionable decision. The 50-50 calls almost always go against the underdogs and Scotland have been three-legged Chihuahuas for some time now. Thankfully Italy may be in an even worse position than their hosts come Saturday and, if there are any close calls to be made, the Scots may finally benefit.
Hadden made no apology for placing two flankers and no locks on the Paris subs bench but he has made a tacit admission of his mistake (and tacit is the only admission of guilt we'll ever get from the Scotland coach) by picking Al Kellock in the second row when he could have stuck with the locks that played three-quarters of the French game…Simon Taylor and Jason White.
The home pack will welcome back the muscle of Euan Murray while Thom Evans and fifth columnist Simon Danielli should have too much gas out wide if the inside backs can generate a little space for them to work with.
The Murrayfield faithful are overdue a resounding victory because this Scotland team has been underperforming for some time. They failed to even get into the ring when Wales visited and, while there were improvements in Paris. The multitude of unforced errors, in selection as well as on the field, cost the Scots dear.
Four years ago the Scots were awful, they beat Italy and Williams lost his job. Two years ago the Scots were awful, lost to Italy after conceding 21 points in the opening seven minutes and Hadden kept his job.
"I think we are making progress and are further ahead than we were at this time last year," said the Scotland coach when announcing his team to play Italy. "Didn't you say that before the Wales match?" responded one quick witted journalist. Yes, he did.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and set his team on course for a shot at the Grand Slam. Tom Hamilton reports from Dublin
With the World Cup only a few months away, the last thing France needed was doubts over the future of their coach, writes Huw Richards
They came to Murrayfield looking to put down a marker, but Scotland were sent home with their tails between their legs, writes Tristan Barclay
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland