AS quickly as it arrives after the turn of the year, so it’s gone again for another 12 months. The Six Nations Championship lasts just seven weeks. But such is the anticipation, expectation and intensity of it all, February 3 – when the show kicked off for the Scots in Cardiff – feels like just a couple of weeks ago.
This year’s tournament, like the previous term, was one Scotland could take pass marks from. Before a ball was kicked, thrown, or dropped, three wins – matching the 2017 campaign – would have marked an improvement in perform-
ance for Scotland under Gregor Townsend, his first championship in charge.
On paper, it may appear similar. However, France and England at Murrayfield could be classed bigger tests than our Celtic brethren 12 months back, and a win against Italy would mean more because it was on the road. A win against Italy. Fans should have known it wouldn’t be easy.
And so Scotland have gone from B to B+ in this transition year, and the shift from Vern Cotter to Gregor Townsend. And that is the overall result; because after that first weekend, there were a few facing possible detention.
The Autumn Tests whetted the app-etite for what was to come in the spring, and maybe some got a wee tad carried away, especially with the first match being away, against a team who had lifted four titles and three Grands Slams since Scotland last won in the Principality in 2002. How was such hysteria whipped up?
It didn’t take long for it all to unravel, Scotland being given a harsh lesson, not so much by the Welsh – who had Townsend’s game-plan sussed from the off – but from the sporting gods.
The way Townsend had Scotland playing, as they did against Australia and New Zealand in November, required supreme accuracy; no measure for being slow, out by fractions in measurement or timing, or positionally. His side was deficient in all those facets.
Accusations of not having a Plan B were wide of the mark. Had Townsend had an alphabet of plans, his men would still have lost because, for whatever reason, they just weren’t on it, not in the zone, stuck in second or third gear.
The servicing that Townsend and fellow coaches undertook over the following eight days was nothing short of remarkable. Scotland could have folded when France scored points from nowhere. But unlike Cardiff, Scotland – in the main – were on their A Game, and so could mix it, stick with, and stay with the French until their inherent indiscipline kicked in. And then Greig Laidlaw kicked them to death.
That Laidlaw played such a key part in that game was the result of Townsend showing he could and would make the tough calls, if there was need to. Hooking Scotland’s game-changer Finn Russell was a game-defining moment. No time or place for sentiment. There was a job to be done, and in that moment, Russell wasn’t up for it.
What he was up for however, was a man-of-the-match performance against England. Everything he tried came off. And those around him appeared inspired, following his lead, typified by Huw Jones at outside centre.
The euphoria of that Calcutta Cup success once again led to what were, perhaps, unrealistic aspirations heading for Dublin and what proved to be a head-on smash against a green machine, accelerating towards what the Emerald Isle would hope would be a Grand Slam.
Ireland didn’t have to play fantastic rugby; Scotland served the win up to them. And of everything during this campaign, their continued inability to carry any form or threat outside of Edinburgh remains an unsolved mystery. If Cardiff and Dublin were a disappointment, then a year from now, the task in Paris and Twickenham won’t be any easier, barring a tactical or inspirational miracle.
That is a long way off, but it is a facet of Scottish rugby that needs fixing, otherwise, forget Crowns, Slams, or titles.
Between now and next February should also be time enough to find a fix to other problems.
While the Warriors star Jones remained inspired and injury-free, yesterday he had a third partner at centre, Nick Grigg given the nod in Rome, ahead of yet another Glasgow player, Pete Horne, who had himself stepped in for Newcastle’s Chris Harris after the Welsh turnover.
Duncan Taylor, Mark Bennett, and Alex Dunbar are possibles, when healthy. Ample choice then for Townsend. Just perm one of six or more with Jones, who should be as much a fixture as Russell (for whom a raised level of consistency wouldn’t go amiss), and Stuart Hogg at full-back.
And another thing. Actually, is there anything?
Because, aside from the results and performances at home especially, in terms of churning up personnel, 2018 has provided a decent crop.
Scotland have proven finishers out wide among the backs, while up front, the back-row of skipper John Barclay, Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson has been pivotal repeatedly, especially against England, whether winning ball or spoiling, an abrasive and aggressive triumvirate you’d prefer having with you than against.
And, having been in the realm of selecting third and even fourth-choice candidates in each of the front-row positions, those called upon, to a man, stepped up, meaning there are now selection headaches in each of the propping berths. It is clearer cut at hooker, where Stuart McInally could be deemed resident, and the benchmark for all-comers.
This year’s championship will be remembered for three things; hammering England, the folly of listening
to the hype before boarding a plane anywhere, and coach Townsend confirming his status as a top thinker and leader. Here’s to 2019.
Source : HeraldScotland