If a tragedy, in the dramatic sense, follows the downfall of an essentially likeable character, then the Scottish rugby team is the sporting Shakespeare. The glorious failure, a well-worn format in the Scottish tradition, was raised to new heights on that rain-lashed October afternoon at Twickenham.
The most important element of the Scottish tragedy – shooting oneself in the foot – was obscured by a refereeing blunder, but that should not hide the fact that the game was very much there to be won. However, there is no doubt that this Scottish team – more likeable than ever – has won over a lot of neutrals.
How bad is the World Cup Hangover?
Head-splitting. The curtains are drawn, the fridge is empty, no amount of water can sate the thirst, and there’s evidence of Snapchats having been sent in the early hours of the morning.
Understandably, losing to Australia in such circumstances has taken an emotional and physical toll. Neither Edinburgh or Glasgow are going particularly well, despite the former’s lofty league position. The derby matches were not easy on the eye.
As for positives, Scotland did look pretty good on the dance floor during the tournament, playing some great attacking rugby, while they also showed remarkable guts in adversity, and managed their comeback brilliantly against Samoa.
The bad news is that Scotland, under the influence and texting an ex-girlfriend, are succumbing to the same old weaknesses. Points were conceded in exactly the same fashion as during the 2015 Six Nations and warm-up matches, maul defence and kick-off receipt were appalling, and the team once again proved incapable of closing out a tight game.
Modern sportsmen are nauseatingly fond of learning lessons in defeat. Perhaps Scotland’s collective memory is somewhat fuzzy, as no learning seems to have taken place. Both professional teams went out of Europe in familiar fashion. Glasgow lost a crucial winning position against Northampton in the last five minutes following a piece of bizarrely unnecessary violent indiscipline. Edinburgh, needing only a bonus point to progress from their group, somehow lost both the lead and a seven point deficit after conceding fifteen in the last ten minutes.
Then there are the injuries. Alec Dunbar and Pete Horne will miss the start of the tournament. Mark Bennett is 50/50 for the first game. Grant Gilchrist is still out, as is Tim Visser. Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour have both had issues in recent times.
What is the cure?
Firstly, there is the small matter of Scotland’s restorative brunch: an opening fixture at home against England at an excited and expectant Murrayfield.
Secondly, there appears to be more depth in certain key attacking positions. Even with three centres injured, Scotland can still field Matt Scott and Duncan Taylor, a top class pairing. The back row looks good too, particularly for the inclusion of no less than four genuine open-side flankers. John Hardie continues to do well for Edinburgh after a strong World Cup, and Jonny Gray, never less than excellent, has dragged an underperforming Glasgow pack through games single-handedly since his return.
Two players to watch
Fagerson is an anomaly in a country which has struggled to produce players who can both gain the weight required for international rugby and maintain their dynamism at the same time. Having just turned 20, the prop stands at a full nineteen stone. While his work in the scrum will inevitably take time to develop, he is already an effective ball-carrier and does a decent job in a ruck as well. Although he’s unlikely to see much game time, it is encouraging to see Scotland produce another tight forward with real talent.
Having struggled for over a decade for decent centres, five have come along at once. Playing in England has meant that Taylor has been removed from the eye of selectors to some extent, but they have been unable to ignore a man in great form for what has been Europe’s best team over the course of the season so far. With other centres not fully fit, Taylor may finally get the opportunity to add to his 12 caps.
On balance, things don’t look that good. There are injury and form concerns, results have been abysmal in the tournament since 2004, and it’s likely to be wet, negating a talented backline. What’s more, there are only two home games. A nervy win in Rome should avoid a second consecutive Wooden Spoon, but unless Scotland get a victory against England first up, a long Spring awaits. Predicted finish: 5th.
By Charlie King (@CharlescpKing)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images