Six Nations 2015: Are whipping boys Scotland the new Italy?

After home defeat by the Azzurri, Vern Cotter’s team can hardly look forward with confidence to Saturday’s Six Nations visit to Twickenham. Chris Hewett sizes up the decline of a rugby team – and rugby nation

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The Independent Online

A question: what is the difference between the Scottish National Party and the Scotland rugby team? The answer: the SNP win even when they lose – just look at the current polls, a few short months after the "No" vote in the independence referendum – while the men of Murrayfield discover new ways of losing, when winning would be a whole lot easier. Maybe they should pick Nicola Sturgeon at scrum-half and have done with it.

Last week’s Six Nations defeat at the hands of Italy was not so much a low point as a subterranean one. Even allowing for the fact that they did not have a proper No 10 to their name thanks to injury and suspension, the Scots’ failure to close out the game at the last knockings was just about the nearest rugby gets to the tragi-comic. But their current plight – three games, three losses, familiar territory – is no laughing matter from anyone’s point of view.

Vern Cotter’s men head to Twickenham next weekend for the 124th Calcutta Cup match. They have not beaten England on the old cabbage patch – or, indeed, anywhere beyond Edinburgh’s city limits – since 1983, when Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street and Alex Salmond was an oil economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland (who, by eerie coincidence, are the current Six Nations title sponsors), and over the last decade and a half, England have won the games played in London by an average score of 45-13. In other words, these fixtures have become too one-sided for comfort.

 

 

 

Thanks to the pratfall against Italy, it will be profoundly surprising if they buck the trend now. That failure increased by roughly a hundredfold the chances of another Scottish wooden spoon, their fourth since 2004. Worse still, it destroyed the fragile spirit of optimism that had been evident amongst the country’s union cognoscenti since the encouraging performances against Argentina, Tonga and the All Blacks (albeit a second-string version) before Christmas.

Before the start of this tournament, the talk had been of a possible finish above the fold. Now people talk of the day when the Six Nations custodians embrace promotion and relegation and the Scots find themselves scrapping for top-table scraps with the likes of Georgia, Romania and Russia. A grim prospect? You could say.

International union needs the Scots to find a way of being better than they are, preferably in good time for this autumn’s World Cup. What the sport does not need, given the tiny number of realistic contenders for the global title, is for one of the eight “foundation nations” to mutate into a British Isles version of… well, Italy, funnily enough.

 

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Italy celebrate scoring their second try

On current evidence, the latter outcome is significantly more likely than the former. Like the Azzurri, the Scots spend virtually all their time at the wrong end of the Six Nations table: only five times in 15 tournaments have they finished higher than fifth. Like the Azzurri, they take the cosmic approach to try- scoring – which is to say, crossings of the opposition whitewash are on the same cycle as Halley’s Comet (not once since the Five Nations became Six at the turn of the century have they managed a double-digit try count in a single competition).

But the similarities are more alarming than anything suggested by mere statistics. The Scots are like the Italians in terms of their professional structure – each country has only two senior teams, an unsustainably small number – and in the absence of anything resembling a meaningful domestic league.

In some ways, they are in a worse place than their mirror images in southern Europe. The Italians at least had the good sense to base their top sides in Treviso and Parma, where rugby union has at least a faint hope of building a following in a country wholly obsessed with football. The Scots? They shut down a professional team based in the Borders, where the likes of Melrose and Selkirk and Hawick had set down deep roots in the community, and turned their faces towards Glasgow, home of Celtic and Rangers.

The fact that Glasgow are now a very decent side, imaginatively coached by the fine former Lions outside-half Gregor Townsend, cannot disguise the fact that many rugby folk in Scotland still consider that decision to be the union equivalent of holding a yachting regatta in the Bermuda Triangle. Indeed, it was Townsend himself who, after the disbanding of the Border Reivers side in 2007, gave eloquent voice to the popular mood and revealed himself as something of a soothsayer into the bargain.

“As a Borderer,” he said shortly after those painful events, “not having a professional team is a bitter pill to swallow and I know this will have dire effects for the region. But, as a supporter of Scottish rugby, I would have been less upset if the team had been relocated elsewhere in the country. That is the real travesty – not having a third professional team is plain wrong. In the short term things will be OK – the best players will be at big clubs in England and France – but for any late developers it will be very hard to get a professional contract. Short-termism is never a good policy.”

 

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Josh Furno emerges with the ball after scoring a try for Italy

And so it has come to pass. When the Scots lost their young, button-bright playmaker Finn Russell to a desperately harsh suspension for alleged dangerous tackling during the defeat by Wales last month, coach Cotter felt he had no option but to ask a centre, Peter Horne, to fill the gap at outside-half. That a supposedly serious Test nation should find itself so bereft of options beggared belief.

But then, virtually every indicator suggests the Scots have fallen off the pace of the modern game and are retreating quickly towards the union code’s version of the broom wagon. The last World Cup, in New Zealand in 2011, was the first in which they failed to make it out of their group, and with South Africa and Samoa in their pool this time round, precious few Scots will risk any of their hard-earned pay by betting on a different outcome.

More damning still is what might be called the Lions deficit. No Scot has started a Lions Test since the wonderful loose-head prop Tom Smith squared up to the Wallabies way back in 2001, and it is difficult to see too many of the current team making the elite side in All Black country  a little over two years from now, although the gifted young lock Jonny Gray could have a squeak.

And then there has been the impact on European club rugby, best described as a gnat bite on an elephant’s buttock. Scottish clubs, usually two but occasionally three, featured in every Heineken Cup tournament bar the first: 18 in all. Only twice did they register a presence at the quarter-final stage. So when Cotter, a rugged New Zealander of the “man of the soil” variety blessed with features that would not look out of place on some Caledonian Mount Rushmore, took personal responsibility for the failure against Italy – “obviously, my message is not getting through,” he said – he was being just a little hard on himself. Scotland could be coached by a combination of Ian McGeechan and William Wallace, with Lady Macbeth as motivator-in-chief, and still fall victim to their organisational failings and structural shortcomings.

Back in the bleak days of dissolution in the Borders, that great sage of the Scottish game, Jim Telfer, warned that the most vibrant of the country’s rugby regions would be turned into a “union dustbowl”. It was an accurate prediction, as well as a graphic one, but he could have gone further. For region, read nation.

Tartan trauma: Six Nations finishes

          Scotland  Italy

2000      5th         6th

2001      3rd         6th

2002      4th         6th

2003      4th         5th

2004      6th         5th

2005      5th         6th

2006      3rd         6th

2007      6th         4th

2008      5th         6th

2009      5th         6th

2010      5th         6th

2011      5th         6th

2012      6th         5th

2013      3rd         4th

2014      5th         6th

2015 (to date) 6th 5th

 

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