Scotland's cupboard is bare
January 13, 2011
Nick De Luca - Scotland's only hope at No.12? © Getty Images
Scottish rugby fans haven't had much to celebrate in recent years. In fact, since the 1999 Five Nations Championship-winning team they have had almost nothing to brag about except the odd victory over an ordinary England side (but not at Twickenham).
So the tartan hordes can be forgiven for wallowing in the team's recent success, walking around with a satisfied glow just like the kid in the Ready Brek advert, or anyone working in a nuclear plant. A team that has only rarely won more matches than they have lost has somehow triumphed in five of their last six outings. They have been beaten just once in their last seven Tests and they (briefly) climbed to sixth in the IRB world rankings table, an all time high. Hallelujah.
You would probably presume that those same Scottish fans are approaching the up-coming Six Nations rubbing their hands in anticipation, speculating on a cheeky Championship, especially given the fact that three of their five games are at Murrayfield this year. They would be well advised not to put the Champagne on ice just yet as 2011 promises to be a tester for the Scots.
Since Andy Robinson took over his team have made a virtue out of making the most of what scant resources they have. They have played somewhere close to their full potential in the last little while (New Zealand excepted) and have snuck games by a last gasp penalty (Ireland and Samoa) or by dogged defence (South Africa and Argentina) but no one claims that this squad of players is rewriting the text books on how to play the game and one wonders how long they can go on papering over the sort of holes that could house the Titanic.
The Scots have a decent, workmanlike pack of forwards, Johnnie Beattie is coming back just in the nick of time and uncapped blindside flanker Rob Harley should make the Six Nations squad, if not the team. The scrum will be solid, the lineout secure and the back-row will compete, but outside the forwards there is a palpable lack of class. We know where the beef is, where are the backs?
The midfield is a case in point. In his short 13-match stint in charge of Scotland the English coach has tries six different starting players at outside-centre. Now that he has a few options at 13 (Max Evans/Joe Ansbro) the problem has migrated to inside-centre, where Graeme Morrison will probably miss the first two matches. The big Glasgow midfielder had made himself all but un-droppable (revisit the victory in Dublin to remind yourself why) but a knee injury does what the selectors would not contemplate. The alternatives are as plentiful as good will at an Old Firm match.
The good news is that Nick De Luca started his first game for Edinburgh this season last weekend, the bad news is that Jon Davies and Regan King of the Scarlets both ran rings around him. The Scot will improve with games and he will need to. Alex Grove has returned to Worcester Warriors and Robinson would be reluctant to cap anyone out of the English Championship even if the centre was ripping up the turf, which he ain't.
And that's that. Robinson now knows how Old Mother Hubbard feels. The cupboard is bare. Morrison's replacement at Glasgow is Peter Murchie, who can't normally get a start for his club while Edinburgh turn to John Houston or James King. Both men have their backers but you wouldn't want to pitch either one into the maelstrom of Test match rugby. Against France. In Paris. Coming off the back of a shellacking by the Wallabies. If De Luca does not improve out of sight in the next two weeks then, frankly, I don't have a clue what Robinson will do and I suspect he doesn't either.
Elsewhere, the coach is better served at fullback where veteran Chris Paterson and rookie Jim Thompson will challenge the incumbent Hugo Southwell. Look out too for Bath's Jack Cuthbert who has been starting for the West Country club at fullback, but he is equally happy on the wing.
Parks is untouchable at fly-half but heaven help the Scots if their third favourite Australian (after Nathan Hines and Ricky Ponting) breaks a leg. His only challenger is Glasgow's Ruaridh Jackson, who played very well against Munster last weekend but had a stinker in the second Edinburgh derby. And no matter what his overall game is like his kicking at goal, notwithstanding his excellent last minute penalty against Samoa, is simply not up to Test match standards. Playmakers need consistency and control, Jackson boasts neither.
In short, the Scots' big men will compete but the backline has claimed exactly three tries in 13 Tests under Robinson and Gregor Townsend and that simply isn't good enough to win many matches. So far the Scots have ridden their luck but either they start scoring tries or they start losing matches. Parks' boot can only take them so far even if most Scottish fans are pleasantly surprised by how far that is.
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