Rugby Union: Ultimate test of Scotland's power of invention

Chris Rea anticipates a relentless day as the Five Nations' revolution gathers pace
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The Independent Online
THERE is not much left of the old game as it was played 80-odd years ago. When Jock Wemyss, the Scottish forward who lost an eye in the First World War and was one of the few players to be capped before and after hostilities, walked into the changing-room before Scotland played France in 1920, he was surprised to see only 14 jerseys. He was even more bewildered to discover that the missing one was his, but on enquiring where it was, he was told by an official: "Don't be ridiculous, Wemyss, you got your jersey in 1914."

Since then the Scots, despite their legendary conservatism and parsimony, have often been in the vanguard of change, if occasionally as reluctant pioneers. Having been opposed to the idea of replacements, they were the first beneficiaries in 1969 when Ian MacRae replaced the injured Gordon Connell at scrum-half early against France at Stade Colombes and helped the Scots to record a rare victory in Paris.

Today at Murrayfield the Scots are once again breaking new ground by playing the world's oldest international rugby fixture, the Calcutta Cup, on the Sabbath. It will not be a day of much rest for a Scottish side whose failure to take theirchances at Wembley a fortnight ago cost them victory against Wales, but whose recent record against the Auld Enemy appears to some to be an almost irreversible trend.

One distinguished commentator has been campaigning for England's secession from the Five Nations' Championship on the grounds that the Celtic nations are incapable of mounting a serious challenge to England and France. The Scots, he argues, have now lost eight games in a row against the Sassenach and have won only four of their last 22 meetings. There have been similar streaks of misfortune before. In 19 matches between 1951 and 1969 the Scots managed just two wins. But no one can recall any threat of England taking their ball home to play against someone their own size. The commentator believes the Celts will accuse him of arrogance, but he is not so much arrogant as lamentably misguided and inconsistent in his argument.

England, he says, should look further afield to the southern hemisphere. But what satisfaction would they derive from the fact that the global shrinkage caused by his short-sighted policies would deprive the international game of its leading lights? Rugby union would then be in the same state of international isolationism as rugby league, whose schemes of global expansion have foundered. And, without a healthy international game, which must include a vibrant Five Nations, rugby union would have no place to go.

That is not to say that England will conveniently roll over today in order to boost Celtic morale. Perish the thought. The presence of Dean Ryan alone, presumably at his most abrasive and belligerent, is the clearest of signals that England have not only come to win but that they intend to extract at least as many points as the French squeezed from the defenceless Scots last month. There is little doubt though that Ryan's Sunday best philosophy of it being infinitely better to give than to receive will be exploited at every opportunity by opponents seeking to uncork the No 8's explosive temperament.

For all their creativity and adventure against Wales at Wembley, the Scots' failure to apply the finishing touches to their excellent preparatory work derived as much from their lack of firepower up front as from a lack of confidence - understandable in a side who have been so ruthlessly savaged recently. Moreover there is the added menace today from an English back division which, despite enforced changes, is built for attack.

With Scott Gibbs, what the Scots saw was what they got, and in the second half he certainly played a crushingly effective game. Yet it was Allan Bateman who consistently posed the greater threat with the subtlety of his running and his clever use of angles. The same skill has many times before been demonstrated by Jeremy Guscott and it is one which is still dying to get out of young Will Greenwood.

Perhaps the most striking statistic surrounding today's encounter - and the one which best highlights the transitory nature of top-class rugby - is that there are only eight survivors from last year's game, four on each side. Then, Scotland were ripped apart by three tries in five minutes, and having been in reasonably close contact going into the final quarter of an hour, they were routed by a record score. It was the kind of humiliation which, unfortunately, they have suffered on a number of occasions and if the Calcutta Cup is not to become a ritual humiliation, their defence will have to be of a much higher class than anything we have seen from them so far.

Even against Wales some of their tackling was slipshod and against the relentless pounding they must expect from the physically superior English forwards, the barricades will have to be fully manned at all times. In this respect Mattie Stewart's late withdrawal through injury is a severe blow, although Paul Burnell's inclusion as his replacement will do nothing to impair the Scottish scrummage.

The Scots are, of course, well accustomed to confronting bigger and heavier opponents and have over the years managed to produce a number of contrivancies to conceal their deficiencies. Their coaches, Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan, are past masters in devising innovative ways to discomfit the enemy, but to maintain that level of commitment and, at the same time, to keep an eye open for all attacking possibilities as teams must do in the modern game is a devilishly difficult task and one that will, in all probability, be beyond Scotland this afternoon.