Scotland must find cutting edge
November 30, 2010
Richie Gray: A futue Lion? © PA Photos
It is one of the peculiarities of life that Andy Robinson was hounded out of Twickenham with a 41% winning record while Martin Johnston is a cast iron certainty to take his squad to next year's Rugby World Cup with one exactly three percentage points better at 44%. Oh well, they say that small margins make the difference in elite sport.
It was Brian Moore who claimed that Robinson was a good coach but a poor selector, which may go some way towards explaining why he has done so well of late. Scotland coaches have very little choice when it comes to picking their best side so the margin for Robinson's error is much reduced when it comes to naming a team. Only at fly-half has Robinson got a real headache, more of which later.
The Scots were one of the few northern hemisphere sides to finish the autumn round of internationals in positive territory and even those who predicted a few isolated victories for the European sides against the southern giants probably weren't reckoning on Scotland beating South Africa. After total humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks the Scots hitched up their britches and matched the Boks for physicality, the fear of further humiliation is a rare incentive, before posting a scrappy win over an ever-improving Samoan side that no one will take for granted in New Zealand next year. All of which means that Robinson's current record with Scotland, at 54%, is markedly better than his record with England was - even if 13 matches hardly represents a convincing sample size.
So far Robinson has breathed self belief into a side who, the New Zealand game excepted, are now devilishly difficult to beat. Even France, who won the Englishman's first Six Nations match in his new post, only finished 18-9 winners despite dominating most of the match. Robinson has tightened up the nuts and bolts of this Scottish team, he has taken away any excuses by insisting that the players hold the secret of success in their own hands and he has cajoled the best from a doughty forward pack to grind out some memorable wins. He has also unearthed some rare talent in Richie Vernon and Richie Gray and you can bet on the latter starting a test for the British & Irish Lions sooner rather than later.
Given the recent history of Scottish rugby we should be grateful for any success whatsoever, but in coaching terms Robinson has done the easy part with the hardest bit still to come. For a nation that produced John Rutherford, Gregor Townsend, Jim Renwick and Ian McGeechan, the Scottish backline looks dreadfully short of natural ball players and those that do exist (Chris Paterson, Ruaridh Jackson) can't get a start.
The end result is all too obvious...the Scots simply can't score tries. Nikki Walker's touchdown last Saturday was only the seventh in Robinson's 13-match career to date. One try every other match is not the stuff of dreams and can Scotland's much-maligned back division really do no better?
It would help if Robinson had a few more bodies to choose from and the paucity of his options is proved by his picking Joe Ansbro from the Northampton subs bench - the centre has done a decent if unspectacular job so far. Thom Evans has retired from the game while Simon Danielli and Nick De Luca are both battling on the injury front, although they should be available for the Six Nations and goodness knows Scotland need a creative spark from somewhere.
The key problem lies with fly-half Dan Parks, who plays too deep. The bigger the game, the deeper he sits. This means that everything the outside backs do is lateral, which is all too easy to defend. Compare and contrast the All Black backs, who run straight lines at fearsome pace, force defenders to cover both shoulders rather than one and offload out the tackle. Of course Scotland cannot call upon the sort of quality that is at Graham Henry's disposal but does that mean they should not even try?
It's a tricky question and one that will be occupying most of Robinson's waking hours between now and next year. With Parks in harness tries will remain a scarce commodity but he is a difficult man to drop because his game management skills are second to none. Allied to the Scottish forwards, who can hold their own against just about any side in world rugby, it makes for a convincing partnership.
The only alternative is to promote Jackson to the starting shirt and hope that the youngster's nerveless penalty to clinch the Samoan match with the very last kick of the game is the norm rather than the exception. But with the big one just over the horizon Robinson's natural instinct to play expansive rugby will surely be tempered by the old truth that you don't send a boy to do a man's job. The time for experimentation is after, not before, the World Cup.
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