A Dream Too Big? Scottish Rugby’s Meandering Efforts Towards Innovation
Scotland – probably best summed up by the lyrics of one of our generation’s great poets. Like a plastic bag that has been drifting through the wind, Scotland lament how this World Cup is the one that got away. Hot and cold, in and out; Scotland were far from walking on air. I think the uninspiring lyrics aptly mirror Scotland’s run of results as of late. They have won three games of their last nine. Italy, Russia, Samoa.
Despite all this; as a neutral and a fanatic fan of the game it pains me to see Scotland exit the World Cup so early. Excepting for France, Northern Hemisphere rugby has traditionally been known for its general lack of aesthetics or flair. The set piece and worn leather on the football from the out-half’s boot define the European game.
While a smattering of exceptions have been seen, they merely seem to prove the rule. The Wales team of the 70’s was perhaps the ultimate exception; an irresistible combination of skill, pace and flair. That Welsh team of Williams, Bennett and Edwards is perhaps an article unto itself, for another time. That team could not have played any other way, like an artist or an author of the written word they had to express themselves.
The problem with Scotland lies not in the tactics; but rather in the players. It may be seen as a simplification of the issues at hand; and an easy thing for an outside analyst to claim. However, it is the truth of the matter. In Ireland, we have arguably a higher standard of player, yet we implement a more conservative, risk-averse style of play. This has arguably yielded more fruits for the Irish Rugby team. However, when this style of play takes to the international stage, its deficiencies become very apparent.
The Six Nations has always been a cash-cow for Northern Hemisphere Nations; and their primary focus. England under Woodworth and Jones have managed to escape this trap of focusing on the Championship and preparing adequately for the World Cup.
The reality is that the cold, often inclement weather in which the Six Nations is played affords an opportunity to obtain results by playing phase intensive, monotonous rugby.
The style in which Scotland have attempted to play in the last few years has been exemplary. Aesthetic, pacey and ambitious. Unsurprisingly, this has seen them finish in the bottom two of the Six Nations more than once.
In terms of doctrine this style of rugby was probably always destined to fail in the Northern hemisphere. However, there are other factors at play here. Scottish club sides are struggling to retain their players. Exemplified by Finn Russell, this culture is decimating the Scottish domestic game; which is having knock-on effects on the national side. Having your key players playing domestically has been proven to be one of the keys to continued success; New Zealand are case and point. Some will of course cite South Africa, but I don’t think it could be argued that they are anything other than freaks of nature in every way.
The thrust of this piece is that Scotland under Gregor Townsend have attempted to be innovators of the game. They strive to go around the defender, rather than through the defender. Scotland have arguably two of the best half-backs in Rugby Union. The problem is that these two half backs are on the field on the same time. Finn Russell is an outhalf full of flair and invention, he plays off the cuff and never wants the ball to be on the floor. Greg Laidlaw on the other hand is the more traditional scrum-half; a commanding general who likes to play the game at his own pace. This clash has been the cause of many of Scotland’s problems. Real rugby fans want to see Townsend continue with Scotland, and for Ali Price and Finn Russell to play at Nine and Ten respectively. Could Scotland be the next force in the Northern Hemisphere?
Matthew Dillon – Sport Editor