Scotland on the up?

Dan Parks kicking Scotland to victory.

By Andy Mackie

Scotland took a southern hemisphere scalp for the second successive year against South Africa on Saturday. Las year after victory over Australia I looked at the state of Scottish rugby overall. This year in the wake of the latest victory I am going to concentrate on the national team.

There is little doubt that both in terms of ability of individual players and strength in depth that the squad is in ruder health than it has been for many years. There are still some areas of concern, not least the lack of a genuine cutting edge in attack, but lets concentrate on the positives first.

The Scottish pack of the 1970’s featuring the likes of Mclauchlan, Carmichael, Brown and McHarg was known as the mean machine and its present day counterpart is showing similar qualities. Indeed there is not a pack in world rugby you wouldn’t fancy the Scots having at least parity with. Especially satisfying is the number of genuine international quality second rows available. This position was an achilles heel of Scotland for many years, while some excellent locks, notably Doddie Weir and Scott Murray, have played for Scotland over the last 15 years they tended to be of the beanpole variety. Scotland seemed incapable of producing the second row monsters such as Johnson, Grewcock and  Shaw that England seemed to churn out. Yet this autumn the prodigious and giant Richie Gray, the resurgent Scott Macleod, the near 20 stone Jim Hamilton, and tough nut veteran Nathan Hines have all pulled on the blue jersey. Add to that Glasgow skipper Al Kellock who is just returning from injury after leading Scotland to victory in Argentina and that’s a formidable bunch. Gray is particularly exciting as at 21 he seems destined for greatness.

Behind this group in the back row Scotland have if anything an even greater wealth of talent. The killer B’s back row of Barclay, Brown and Beattie proved as good a back row as any since Jeffrey, Calder and White this year. However injury to Johnny Beattie has allowed Richie Vernon to blossom at number 8 for club and country. It will be interesting when Beattie returns to see if Andy Robinson elects to go with the power and solidity of Beattie or the pace and offloading of Vernon. Alistair Strokosh also missed the autumn schedule through injury and on return will provide fierce competition to Kelly Brown on the blindside. Over on the open both Ross Rennie and Allan MacDonald can count themselves very unfortunate to be contemporaries of John Barclay – surely one of the finest open sides in the world.

The one area of slight concern may be the front row. Not that there is anything wrong with the first choice trio of Jacobsen, Ford and Murray. Jacobsen in particular is in the best form of his life and they are both effective in the scrum and dynamic around the park. The worry would be in the back up players. At prop Moray Low has done well when called upon but the likes of Dickinson, Cross and Traynor have yet to convince at this level. The nightmare scenario for Andy Robinson would no doubt involve a serious injury to Ross Ford as Hall and Lawson may be decent club players but neither are serious international class hookers.

Behind the scrum things are a little less cut and dry. Both in terms of individual ability and gelling as a unit the back line lags behind the forwards. Scrum half is an obvious area of strength with Blair, Cusiter and Lawson vying for the number 9 jersey. Blair and Cusiter are both Lions of course but at the moment Lawson is the man in possession. He may not be as dangerous in attack or eye catching as the other two but his reliability and quality of service makes him an ideal foil to Dan Parks. It must be said that Greig Laidlaw is a fair player to have in reserve and Scotland must wish they had a fourth choice player that good in other back positions.

The midfield continues to be Scotland’s biggest headache. At stand off Dan Parks has finally established himself and while he may retain some defensive frailties his kicking and general game control is invaluable. Outside Robinson is still looking for the right balance in his centres. Morrison is an effective and powerful crash ball but as yet a genuine talent at outside centre has still to emerge. Evans, Cairns, Grove and Ansbro have all had opportunities but none as yet have provided the answer.

In the likes of the Lamonts, Dannielli and Walker Scotland have a number of powerful wings but thanks to the tragic career ending injury to Thom Evans no searing pace. At full back Hugo Southwell is solid but many would prefer to see the more swashbuckling Rory Lamont, if he can steer clear of injury.

So all in all the picture is fairly rosy. Tis Scotland team and the pack in general should fear no one, except perhaps the All Blacks and everyone should fear an on song New Zealand. However, to make the leap from good team to a genuine world class one the must learn to play a more expansive game and critically learn to turn possession into tries.

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