Glory of Scotland's unlikely advance

After a calamitous build-up to the championships, the Scots engage England as favourites tomorrow. Steve Bale reports
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The Independent Online
To hear Richie Dixon talking, you would think that the Scotland selectors sat down at the start of the season and calculatedly wrote off everything that came before the Five Nations' Championship as worth much only if it helped towards this greater goal.

Hence, obviously, the awful performance in achieving a draw with Western Samoa which was treated as a defeat by players and followers alike. Hence, too, the equally desperate defeat by the Italians of a team styled "Scotland A", but the full international side in all but name.

Mind you, this latter debacle - its most pointed statistic being the 1-4 try-count - came only a fortnight before the championship opened and surely not even Dixon, who is just as canny as coach as Jim Telfer is as team manager, imagined that it foreshadowed a march all the way to the Grand Slam.

But if they achieved nothing else, these results lulled the rest of us into such a false sense of security that already Scotland have beaten Ireland, France and Wales - so that when they play England at Murrayfield tomorrow the Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Calcutta Cup, not forgetting the newish Five Nations trophy, all stand glittering before them.

To hear Telfer talking, on the other hand, you might just wonder how on earth the Scots have got this far. The manager, who has this season developed himself into a curious mixture of mascot and martinet, says Scotland were lucky to win both away games, in Ireland and Wales, and verging on the suicidal in the way they beat France.

Here is a man for whom the word "disappointed" is a post-match response to any eventuality - to which one can only respond in turn that if he was as disappointed as he said after beating the Irish, French and Welsh, he must have felt diabolical after drawing with the Samoans and losing to Italians. Unless he takes the amazing Dixon line that the first two matches were part of a grand design that was crucial in creating the following three victories.

In fact it was not like this at all. There was no devilish plot. For one thing, Scotland have a habit of playing like amateurs - if they will pardon the expression in these days of open (professional) as well as open (Scottish) rugby - before Christmas. The 51-15 thrashing by New Zealand in 1993 was one such example, though perhaps more striking still was the 1994 equivalent when they lost 34-10 to South Africa, because that preceded going three-quarters of the way to a Grand Slam in '95.

Then, the unlikely Scottish advance was finally halted at Twickenham and they were given a flea in the ear by Brian Moore, now the ex-England hooker, for having the temerity to stop Will Carling's boys playing the fast, loose rugby of which they liked to talk, and still do. How deliciously ironic that it should now be Scotland who have made a thrilling art form of playing fast and loose and that it will be England's choice either to copy the Scots of last year or this year.

Either way, it is a fascinating prospect, though even Dixon could not have expected his team to have become the role-models of the Five Nations. Indeed, you could argue that all Scotland's first two matches did was assist Telfer and Dixon in resolving who not to pick, though that was clearly no bad thing.

Thus only eight of the team who faced Samoa in November survived to face Ireland two months later or England tomorrow. The subsequent 29-17 defeat in Rieti had three specifically beneficial effects in persuading the selectors to restore Michael Dods on the wing, Ian Smith at open-side flanker and Doddie Weir at lock.

They might have hoped for more line-out ball from Weir, but they could scarcely complain about the other two. Having been restored for his goal- kicking, Dods has not kicked as many as he would have liked but has compensated with three of Scotland's five championship tries; Smith has been the single most important forward in achieving the continuity necessary for the Scots' fluid rugby to function.

After the embarrassment in Italy, the need was not to develop a game plan - Scotland already had one, even if it had not been working - but to develop the confidence to use it. That this has transpired is poignantly demonstrated by the continuing relegation of Craig Chalmers and Gary Armstrong, Lions half-backs both, to the replacements' bench.

It has been said, not least by Telfer himself, that Scotland have been helped by the timetable of their fixtures; to start the championship with Ireland was preferable to starting with anyone else. But let us be fair: at the time (and it is less than six weeks ago), the Scots did not have a prayer wherever they went. How wrong we all were; how glad to be so.