Scottish rugby is in a downward spiral – “devaluation max” you might call it in this year of the independence referendum – and there were moments in Dublin last weekend when rock bottom seemed unnervingly close.
The pack, in particular, looked weak and divided, wholly at odds with one another. They were about as charismatic as Alistair Darling, as muscular as Nicola Sturgeon and as united as the electorate appears to be on the most burning issue of state.
It took a Welshman to tell it how it was. “Across the board the forwards were pretty average and I’m not going to hide away from it,” said Jonathan Humphreys, the former Test hooker and captain from Bridgend who joined the Scotland coaching staff in April last year and has spent the last 10 months working on ways of raising performance levels up front.
“There needs to be a significant improvement over the next few weeks if we hope to be competitive in this Six Nations. Our inability to put points on the board against Ireland came from us losing three of our first five line-outs. It’s very difficult to create pressure when you release the valve like that.” Ouch. If only the men on the field had hit as hard.
So it was that Kelly Brown, who led the side from the open-side flank six days ago, found himself dumped for this afternoon’s meeting with England – not merely from the starting line-up, but from the entire match-day squad. Richie Gray, the unusually large and occasionally dynamic second-rower who played off the bench against the Irish, has gone as well, replaced by his younger brother Jonny. There might have been changes at prop too, if there was anyone up in the hills or down in the glens demanding inclusion.
All this would be fine and dandy from England’s point of view but for the fact that Graham Rowntree, the red-rose forwards coach, sounded a lot like Humphreys in appraising his charges following the first round of tournament action. He was especially grumpy in relation to the scrummaging effort against the French in Paris, pointing out that Thomas Domingo, Nicolas Mas and company had added six points to their side’s winning tally through their superiority at the set piece and adding that he would not countenance anything of the sort happening at Murrayfield.
Dan Cole, the tight-head prop from Leicester and just about the least expendable member of the pack right now, was heavily implicated in these goings-on at the sharp end and did not try to absolve himself of blame when he reflected on events in the French capital.
“Four scrum penalties and a free-kick against us – it wasn’t ideal,” he confessed. “The first penalty I conceded myself was a slip. The referee [Nigel Owens of Wales, by common consent the most accomplished official in the sport] could have called for a reset; he could have pinged me. He pinged me. I know what he said about my feet being too far back, but that’s just one of the buzz phrases of the moment. Why would I have my feet too far back, when you’ll either end up too straight or flat on your face?”
And the second penalty? Cole’s eyes narrowed at the memory. “On that one, I got done,” he replied, through gritted teeth. By this he meant “done” by his opponent rather than by Owens, which hurt his feelings a whole lot more.
Regardless of the esoteric whys and wherefores at the set piece, Cole turned in what Rowntree called “a big shift” against the French, playing the full 80 minutes – something of a rarity for a prop of any description these days. Not that he had a fat lot of choice in the matter. David Wilson of Bath is England’s number two No 3, and the moment he injured a calf muscle in a low-key training game before Christmas it was obvious that the Leicester man would be asked to shoulder the heaviest of burdens in Paris. There is a big gap between Cole, Wilson and the kids further down the front-row food chain. Last weekend, the coaches had no intention of blooding Henry Thomas of Sale at Test level unless the senior citizen found himself in extremis.
Life at the scrum should not be quite so complicated on Saturday. Even though Cole’s direct opponent, Ryan Grant of Glasgow, materialised in the Lions party in Australia last summer, he is some way short of Domingo’s level. All the same, Stuart Lancaster and the rest of the England hierarchy will expect their most experienced prop to play another long game.
“Another 80 minutes for me? Hopefully,” Cole said. “As a prop in today’s rugby, you can understand it when you’re dragged off after 50 minutes or an hour – there’s obvious value in people coming on with fresh legs and all the rest of it. But as long as I’m not letting down the team, I prefer to stay on. Come the back end of a game, you’re not always as energetic as an opponent who suddenly arrives off the bench, but there again you’re the one in the rhythm of it. While the new guy might seem keen and full of edge, he’s the one who has to play his way into the contest.”
Like many tight-head props, Cole has had his work cut out getting to grips with the recent switch to new scrum protocols – the biggest change to set-piece play in the professional era. The East Midlander is a substantial unit at 6ft 2in and almost 19st and to all intents and purposes he might have been designed specifically to prosper under the old “big hit” engagement. Now, with the familiar hit-and-drive routine giving way to something far more touchy-feely and technique-driven, the threat posed by a rejuvenated loose-head fraternity is significantly greater.
“Yes, I’ve been affected by the changes,” he admitted with refreshing candour. “But then, we all have. Name me a No 3 who is completely dominant in the scrums these days. I don’t think you’ll find one. Mas, the Frenchman, has been a strong player for years, but if you watch his performances at club level for Montpellier this season, you’ll see what I mean. Yet if you ask me if things have improved under the changes to the engagement, I’d say that overall they’ve had a very positive effect. There are still some difficulties here and there but the set piece is less of a lottery now than it was previously. Under the old protocols, the referees were basing their decisions on guesswork. Now things seem to be clearer.”
Most props worth their salt enjoy their hippo-like rolls in the mud and Cole is no different, so this afternoon’s proceedings on the worm-infested ploughed field that passes for an international-class surface in Edinburgh should be right up his alley. As Dylan Hartley, his front-row partner, pointed out, every meeting with the Scots turns into an arm-wrestle sooner or later, irrespective of whether the going is fast or slow. All things considered, Cole should be in his element.
“Actually, if we score 10 tries and don’t concede, I’d be happy with that,” he said with a smile. “But in reality the Scots always front up at Murrayfield. They’re not the sorts to make things easy for you, so if you come out with a win up there, you’ll definitely have earned it. I’m not saying all the finer things go out the window when you play Scotland, but it often boils down to who wants it most.”
Cole wants it as much as anyone. Last summer he played second fiddle to Adam Jones of Wales on the Lions tour and did not find the experience much to his liking. Jones is on his last legs now and when you cast your eye around these rugby islands, there are not too many quality tight-head specialists announcing themselves as world-beaters in the making. At 26, the Englishman is still a pup in front-row terms, albeit a bloody great big one, so a series of strong performances between now and next year’s World Cup will put him in pole position for the next Lions Test series, in New Zealand in 2017. It is a long road, but the 80-minute man is known for his staying power.Reuse content