Jonny McLeod continues the series profiling each of the Six Nations contenders by evaluating Scotland’s prospects in 2010. Can they improve on last year’s 5th place finish?
Scotland’s defensive game has improved hugely over the past six months. During the autumn internationals they conceded two tries in three games – famously beating Australia with a remarkable rearguard action (and a little help from the wayward boot of Matt Giteau). Defence coach Graham Steadman has encouraged a great work ethic and pride within the players.
That work-rate is no more obvious than in their aggressive back-row, which regularly puts in huge tackle counts each game, and they will again be central to Scotland’s prospects. They will be expecting much from John Barclay, who this time last year was being tipped for an important role with the British and Irish Lions in South Africa.
Chris Paterson is among the best goal-kickers in the world and, if he can find a way into the starting XV, Scotland will be ready to punish any infringements from the opposition. Phil Godman and Dan Parks, though, are able deputies.
Scotland may have conceded just two tries during November, but then they only scored two as well. They have struggled for a long time to find the creativity and strike runners in the backs to make inroads into opposition defences. With Godman standing at number 10, they have been more willing to keep the ball in hand and play an expansive game in recent months.
But this has yet to reap real dividends. In their last outing against Argentina they failed to take their opportunities and lost 9-6. Their lack of clinical finishing remains their biggest problem going into the Six Nations Championship. With an inform Parks back in the squad; Andy Robinson may opt to restore the experienced fly-half in control and leadership.
Coach’s perspective: Andy Robinson
“We have belief amongst the squad. We fear nobody but it is about having a huge start against France and having a Murrayfield crowd that are ready to support the team and get behind them,” he told www.scottishrugby.org. “It is vital that we have a full house. I have no doubt that the squad are ready to perform.”
Key player: Chris Cusiter
The scrum-half will continue to skipper the side in the absence of Mike Blair, who is set to miss the opening two fixtures. Robinson has stated his side need to improve their leadership and much responsibility will fall on Cusiter, particularly in the absence of back-rowers Jason White and Ali Hogg and a potential scrap for the number 10 jersey between Godman and Parks. Cusiter is sharp and strong, but lacks the playing making potential of Blair at the base of the ruck and maul.
One to watch: Alex Grove
The Worcester centre had a strong introduction to international rugby in the autumn. Scotland have auditioned a number of centres to varying success over the past few years with Max Evans, Ben Cairns, Nick De Luca and Simon Webster all holding the shirt at some stage. With the direct Graeme Morrison firmly installed at inside centre, Grove will be looking to establish himself at outside centre ahead of Evans.
All too often the Murrayfield stands are sparsely packed. But with home matches against France on the opening weekend and a penultimate test against England, Murrayfield should be full and fizzing with emotion.
Scotland’s Six Nations Fixtures:
Sun 7 Feb v France, Murrayfield
Sat 13 Feb v Wales, Millennium Stadium
Sat 27 Feb v Italy, Stadio Flaminio
Sat 13 Mar v England, Murrayfield
Sat 20 Mar v Ireland, Croke Park
Last season: 5th
This season: 5th