Mission impossible awaits Scotland
October 22, 2008
It would help set the tone of Scotland's upcoming task if you could set the mood by quietly humming the theme tune to Mission Impossible..."de de de de da da, de de de de da da, de de de de da da ...nanana nanana nanana Nana".
An explanation of sorts follows but first a very brief history lesson. Since its inception way back in 1987 Scotland have never failed to reach the knock out stages of the World Cup. They even went one better and reached the semi-finals in 1991 and where the best team that Scotland has produced in the modern era were a whisker away from reaching the final.
It's a proud record for a small rugby country that has ever less to boast about in the professional era and that record has been achieved only by the skin of their collective teeth. It required a late, late try from Tom Smith against Fiji to ensure that the Scots progressed in Australia '03 and last time out in France the men in blue beat Italy by the same, less than convincing margin, of just two points. A late penalty by David Bortolussi sailing past the posts and causing tears in the eyes of several Italian journalists who had long ago given up any pretence at objectivity.
Sadly for Scotland a tough ask is about to get a whole lot tougher. The IRB changed the way the World Cup is seeded and now, instead of relying upon the previous tournament (four years out of date) they are going to rely on the official IRB rankings as at the end of this year (just three years out of date by the time NZ 2011 kicks off).
Scotland lie in ninth place an agonising 0.26 ranking points behind Ireland. If the teams stay in that position Ireland will go into the second group of seeds (for the four World Cup pools) and Scotland will go into the third group of seeds. The upshot is that, for Scotland to maintain their record of always making at least the quarterfinals, they will have to beat at least one team ranked higher than them.
In order to leap frog the Irish in the IRB's rankings the Scots will need to get a result in the autumn internationals, or rather they will need to get two results. Canada sit in a lowly 15th place and beating them won't give Scotland much of a leg up so they will need to get points against New Zealand, whom they have never beaten, or the World Champion Springboks.
Whether by luck or judgement Ireland have a better chance of ranking points because they play the Pumas who, after home advantage for the hosts is taken into consideration, will still be ranked well ahead of Ireland. Argentina are not the force they were in the World Cup and an Irish victory is anticipated, pushing them out of sight of the Scots.
Moreover some Scottish players are desperately short of game time. At the time of writing Jason White has started just one match for Sale Sharks this season and that was in the ED--who gives an--F Cup. The classy Scottish centre Ben Cairns made his first outing of the season for Edinburgh on October 18 against Castres in the Heineken Cup.
The Scottish pro-teams are not exactly ripping up the turf in Europe (three losses and one win to date) and Frank Hadden's argument with Premier Rugby Ltd ended with the SRU accepting the exact deal that the English club's umbrella organisation offered them months ago. Only now the Welsh clubs have refused to release their players for training two weeks ahead of the All Blacks test.
Hadden also appointed Mike Blair as national captain just days after the industrious scrum-half had the worst game anyone can remember him playing against Leinster in the Heineken Cup. Blair is a quality player and he will bounce back without doubt but he would love to be looking ahead to daunting tasks ahead with better form.
Looking for positives within Scottish professional rugby right now is a daunting task. The form of Edinburgh prop Geoff Cross, one of two uncapped players in the Scotland squad, makes him a potential tighthead reserve for Northampton's Euan Murray and Ally Dickinson's emergence into first team rugby at Gloucester will put some pressure on Allan Jacobsen to bring out his best but that's about that.
The Scots still don't have a flyhalf of genuine international quality, their world class number eight Simon Taylor has been stuck in the Stade Francais second row for the last few months and their test lock Nathan Hines has been kicking his heels on the sidelines recently after a one month ban for stamping; hardly the ideal preparation for beating the Blacks. And just when they thought thinks couldn't get any worse, lock Scott MacLeod has tested positive for enhanced levels of testosterone in his body.
He may have been guilty of nothing whatsoever but it is the second drug scandal involving the Scarlet Scot this year and, in the best case scenario, it will still prove an unwanted distraction for the players even as they face a challenge of eye-popping enormity.
All together now: "de de de de da da, de de de de da da.... "