The Last Word: If Scotland back themselves they
could yet upset the Six Nations odds
Goaded by odds of 66-1, they could 'still rise now/ and be the nation again'
Well that's all sorted then: England even money for the Grand Slam, after two matches, and pundits wondering how many token Celts can be conscionably admitted to the Lions squad. In other words, the rosbifs are exactly where everyone wants them – ready to be served bleu, perhaps, or to play princess as George (North) turns into the dragon.
Already this year the English have had to remind Jim Telfer that they are not arrogant, while Warren Gatland has openly confessed that too many in his squad might sour the Lions tour. In fairness, as Telfer stresses, Stuart Lancaster himself scarcely supports the caricature. But his humility can never be sufficient to curdle the perennial lifeblood of this tournament: namely, a cheerful Celtic determination to roll those men in white into the mud.
The great thing about this hostility is that it is self-fulfilling. Those Englishmen who protest themselves never happier than in persecuting Scottish grouse, or Irish salmon, seem merely condescending; and the few who do profess a reciprocal animosity, obligingly bull-headed.
For any uncomfortable with this dilemma, one reformation does recommend itself. And that is to drop the national anthem of the United Kingdom, in favour of one that might permit some parity in romanticised patriotism. True, if the Twickenham terraces can make an old American spiritual reek of boisterous self-regard, you worry what they might do even to, say, "I Vow To Thee My Country". But no mind could be so small as to resent a composer as sublime as Holst, and new respect in foes would be matched by new fire in England players reprieved from mumbling about the monarch.
As it is, they must curl their toes in responding to a variety of belters from their rivals. Everyone adores La Marseillaise, but the one that most reliably gets into this soul is a folk song written only in 1967: Flower Of Scotland. This partly reflects personal attachments and jealousies that together prompt a despairing quest, in veins extending from Co Mayo to Cologne, for a single Scottish corpuscle. But even less affected witnesses must surely share a degree of heartbreak – and exasperation – over Scottish rugby.
Its failure in the professional era to match the progress of Ireland, for instance, can be more competently explained by those with a proper grasp of institutional and structural miscalculations since clubs like Melrose, Hawick, Gala and Kelso disappeared from the vernacular of international sport. But without claiming to know cause from effect, even the layman can perceive the transparent peril that lurks on the margin between patronising perspectives south of the border, and the nostalgia of the Scots themselves.
For it is all very well to celebrate the last generation of amateur greats, stirring names like Rutherford and Laidlaw, or Calder and Jeffrey, or captains Hastings and Sole; to evoke the Grand Slam decider of 1990, the year Flower Of Scotland was adopted, when England were sent homeward "tae think again". But if "those days are past now/and in the past/they must remain" then it does seem imperative not to forget the next lines. Unless, that is, you prefer just to wring your hands over a tiny playing population, and wait for everyone else to decide that international rugby should be restored to some glorified version of the Varsity Match.
Unsurprisingly, many south of the Tweed sooner chose to dwell on the deficiencies of Italy last Saturday. But nor did many Scots seem prepared to venture the possibility that a team capable of winning in Australia last summer, and now in the hands of an unpredictable new coach, might yet be entitled to a run at this championship.
Now it is certainly true that Stuart Hogg's interception represented a 14-point turnaround. But the fact is that the Scots, chronically infertile in recent years, suddenly have a back division capable of running in two tries at Twickenham, and four tries against Italy, off an increasingly solid base. For all the presumptions on behalf of England players, Gatland will surely be paying close attention to the development of Hogg, Matt Scott and Tim Visser, now scorer of five tries in seven internationals. At flanker, Kelly Brown plainly merits consideration already. Richie Gray, meanwhile, has potential to become a tour talisman at lock. And look at those names at No 8 and No 9: Beattie and Laidlaw. Just like old times.
So let's hope Scots can resist obsessing about spoons, whether the silver ones down south or the wooden one presented after last year's ignominy. The French could yet be looking at one of those in Paris – by which time Scotland will have enjoyed home advantage against Ireland and Wales. Goaded by odds of 66-1, they could "still rise now/and be the nation again." But only if they believe as much themselves.
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