Scotland are a competitive side again, something which 2016 has confirmed for me. Despite the near heroics of Rugby World Cup 2015, I still wasn’t overly convinced by Scotland. They were certainly on an upwards curve and Vern Cotter and his men executed their pool exit strategy perfectly. However, generally Scotland were still firm underdogs against most-sides. In the World Cup Quarter-Final, even if the score didn’t dictate it, I never felt as though Scotland were on top against the Wallabies- more as though they were holding on due to uncharacteristic, sloppy errors from the Wallabies and missed kicks. In that game the Scots were outscored five tries to three.
Fast-forward a year and Scotland out-scored a Wallabies side, who ripped holes in the Welsh defence just a week before, by three tries to two. They beat more defenders, made more metres, made more clean breaks and more offloads than the Aussies. This followed on from a Six Nations where they ran Wales and England close (on the score-board at least), beat Italy and beat France at Murrayfield for the first time in a decade. They followed that with a clean sweep on their tour of Japan, a team who beat South Africa last year and were cruelly denied by a Sam Davies drop goal when they played Wales in Cardiff at the weekend.
The main negative following their first game was one of those same-old Scotland moments. The defiant losers, brave old Scotland, just need to learn how to close out a game. Brilliant stuff, never heard anyone say that before.
The following game which promised so much, was quite frankly dire. The Scottish crowd showed up in numbers, the Murrayfield crew put on a brilliant pre-match show. The fireworks were to stop there. Argentina looked shattered after what has been a long and gruelling season for them. To be honest, Scotland looked similar. Despite another stand out performance from Huw Jones and a great debut from Edinburgh loose-forward Magnus Bradbury, there was little to inspire the crowd. Even the tackling machine, Jonny Gray, who’s tackling stats were phenomenal the week before, looked average as he was just SECOND best tackler of the home nations this weekend…….
The positive for me that out-shone all of this, was the resolve shown to get the win. With scores tied in the final ten minutes, Finn Russell missed two dropped goals. Greig Laidlaw missed a penalty. I was getting ready to put on my ‘Argentina are a good side nowadays’ face, as Scotland sat in more or less the same position as last week. This time though, they were patient, composed. One error by Argentina and Laidlaw punished it. Three minutes into the red and he landed the penalty that won the game and crucially, got Scotland into then top eight ahead of Argentina and the World Cup pool draws next year.
There’s still the potential stumbling block of Georgia next weekend- up to twelfth in the world rankings, they’re certainly a side to reckon with, having beaten Samoa in Tbilisi last weekend. If a strong side is selected and they perform, Scotland should make it through alive and will be going into the Six Nations on a high.
It should be said that Scotland usually seem to do better in the Autumn than in the Six Nations, but with a number of new players blooded to help improve depth and a really strong year so far, Scotland should be targeting going one better than last year.
Italy seem an improved side after their win over South Africa, although it’s only O’Shea’s second game in charge. Ireland and England seem unstoppable at present.
As a Scotland fan the Wales game at Murrayfield is a huge target. Not only is it the day before my birthday (hint Mum and Dad), if they win that, alongside the Italy games and France games then real progress will be shown from the team that lost every single game in Cotter’s first Six Nations campaign. This is a tall order, but in my eyes it’s something absolutely achievable and would confirm that the Scots are a competitive side once more.
‘Competitive’ doesn’t mean that they will necessarily lift the Six Nations trophy, or beat the All Blacks next week, but it means that sides will be wary, games will be tense and exciting- Scotland already play an exciting brand of rugby under Cotter. With Gregor Townsend coming in and improved performance, Scotland are now in my eyes a competitor worth going to watch, not a team that you go to watch because “we should probably win this one”
Gone are the days of Scotland results being based on crap weather and penalties. Welcome back Scottish Rugby.
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The Scribbler, 22nd November, 2016