For Scottish rugby fans, the taste of defeat has become a depressingly familiar sensation. Since the inception of the Six Nations fourteen years ago, most championships have seen Scotland mired near the bottom of the table, usually tussling with Italy to escape the wooden spoon. It can become fairly dispiriting watching your national team struggle to achieve even mediocrity year after year: unsurprisingly, realistic expectations of success in Scottish rugby have become modest at best.
However, hope for Scottish rugby has always remained strong, with the occasional victory over more successful opposition fueling a sense of (often foolish) optimism, most obvious when it comes to matches against England. Recent encounters between the two at Murrayfield had been close affairs until this year, and with a shocking weather forecast and worm-infested pitch promising a messy game, hopes were high that an upset could be on the cards. Surely the fact we were playing the Auld Enemy would provide enough motivation to raise our game from the toothless showing against Ireland the week before?
The answer was a categorical no. What transpired was probably one of the worst Scotland performances ever. Scotland slumped to a 20 – 0 defeat, thoroughly outplayed by an England team who impressed in all areas of the pitch, but who never needed to even approach their best. Appalling defence and indiscipline amongst the Scottish ranks led to a raft of penalties and try-scoring opportunities; if England had been more clinical, a comprehensive defeat would have turned into a complete annihilation. The statistics in offence were even more woeful, with a mere 3% of the match played in the English 22, reflecting Scotland’s lack of possession and complete inability to threaten the opposition’s defence. The nematode worms were probably more dangerous than the Scotland attack.
All of these figures and more made for an unremittingly grim spectacle, but what was most demoralizing was the limp, heartless way in which Scotland seemed to roll over and accept its fate. Heavier defeats have been inflicted upon the men in blue before, but never, never has there been a match where spirit and passion was not evident, and where there was not at least something to cheer for. The fact that I cannot think of a single moment in that match where Scotland provided even the slightest cause for hope is not only embarrassing, but also deeply worrying. What has gone so catastrophically wrong in Scottish rugby?
Some of the blame must undoubtedly lie with the players themselves. The backline, deprived of attacking ball, drifted aimlessly on the rare occasion when the ball made it past Weir at number 10, whose constant kicking out of hand – most of which was poor – snuffed out any opportunity to attack, merely giving the ball back to a dangerous England backline. However, if the finger is to be pointed anywhere in the team, it is amongst the forwards, who were totally outplayed in every way and failed to provide the platform from which the backs could attack. The set-piece failed spectacularly, while at the breakdown they were completely out-muscled. Changes for the next match in the second and back rows should at the very least be considered closely.
Many have bemoaned the lack of depth and talent in the Scotland side, and it is undeniable that Scotland lacks the word-class individual talent needed to be a top team. The national side is always going to struggle when there is less money available, fewer players and limited ability to play top flight rugby than all the other 6 Nations sides. A lot of justified criticism has been directed at the SRU for the way it runs the game at all levels within Scotland, and structural change is needed to ensure the survival of Scotland in the top flight of international rugby. But this has been the situation since professionalisation in 1995, and never has a Scots team played so badly as the showing against England. Much of the immediate blame for Scotland’s recent collapse in form must lie with Scott Johnson and his coaching staff. Under his tenure the line-out, once Scotland’s strong point, has collapsed, while some of his player selections have been baffling – dropping captain Kelly Brown from the squad being perhaps the most disastrous.
After this tournament, Clermont’s Vern Cotter will take over from Johnson, and we can only hope that he will have a similar effect to that which Joe Schmidt has had upon Ireland. In the meantime, fans are going to have to hope for the best, but expect the worst. It looks like Scottish rugby’s search for success will have to wait for a while yet.