Scotland scoring total satisfaction

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: Wales make journey to Murrayfield to face rejuvenated opponents. Steve Bale reports
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The Independent Online
The tectonic plates under Scottish rugby shifted seismically over 240 not always very good minutes of rugby, when Scotland went from no- hopers to such hopers that they go in against Wales at Murrayfield on Saturday half-way to an improbable Grand Slam.

As if that were not enough, the same queue of distinguished ex-internationals who blithely rubbished their team before and after Christmas are now lining up to apologise. It was, John Jeffrey said, "the sweetest humble pie I have ever eaten".

Which permits Douglas Morgan, the Scotland coach, to note with sardonic satisfaction: "The same people six weeks ago were calling for my head."

So the enemy within has metamorphosed into a fan club, the acerbic assessments which followed Scotland's crushing November defeat by South Africa having turned into paeans as modest recovery in beating Canada and Ireland was turned into outright triumph by winning in France for the first time in 26 years.

The Scots are now, quite reasonably, favoured to beat Wales, whereas in the aftermath of the two countries' losing performances against the Springboks, they most certainly were not. Beat the Welsh, who last won here 10 years ago, and the newly marauding Scots move on to Twickenham for a Grand Slam match on 18 March.

The distressing South African experience was a culmination, Scotland's ninth successive defeat and the eighth game without a win since Morgan had succeeded Ian McGeechan as coach. Poor Dougie: he lost all four way back when he was captain as well. It has been a hard, ruthlessly educative couple of years, but somehow he never lost his faith, even when such luminaries as Scotland's last two Grand Slam captains, Jim Aitken and David Sole, were pillorying his team and, by extension, him.

"I always believed that all we needed was one win to turn it around," Morgan said. "If you look at some of the results - the one-pointer against England, one and two-pointers in Argentina with a development squad, a draw in Ireland - we weren't far away.

"Even against South Africa, either side of half-time we gave away two of the softest tries I've ever seen in international rugby after being well in the game for 40 minutes, and when that happens to inexperienced players it is bound to have a severe effect. Admittedly, we have been well and truly beaten by New Zealand, South Africa and Wales, but we were never as bad as we were painted."

That said, you would never have imagined from the way Scotland played against Canada and Ireland that they were developing fast enough to win in Paris. That was the effect. The cause is the sea-change in so many things since the South African nadir - tactics, form, attitude, selection - and, all stirred together, they have turned losers into winners.

To begin with, there were 10 changes for the Canada match. This is an implicit condemnation of his previous choice to which Morgan will not admit. "The selection to play South Africa was the right one given the form and availability of the players at the time, though obviously certain individuals didn't perform well on that particular day."

One certain individual was Gavin Hastings, who bore the brunt of the subsequent criticism as if he were personally responsible. Yet the fact was that the captain's recurring back trouble was far worse then than was ever publicly admitted and, precisely as he did in the second Lions Test in New Zealand in 1993, he played despite intense discomfort because his team needed him so badly.

More recent events have been Hastings's vindication, although he is only the most obvious among those whose well-being has been restored since the Springboks, not just physically but mentally. "I don't think we were as bad as people made out - but we weren't very good either," Jim Telfer, the Scottish Rugby Union's director of rugby and a figure of the most profound respect in the game north of the border.

"The players had to take a hard look at themselves, and when people like Scott Hastings were dropped - a player who it had been taken for granted would automatically get in - it was a great shock to some of them and made sure that they took personal responsibility for what happened on the field."

Telfer, former national captain and coach, is even prepared to admit that the critical barrage was justified, but Morgan could not possibly bring himself to agree. "It was unbelievable, totally over the top," he said. "I fully accept the press and media are there to do a job and criticise when it's right, but I was annoyed at the past players who jumped on the bandwagon."

These included Aitken, Sole, Jeffrey, Finlay Calder, Gary Armstrong and Jim Renwick, a cast-list of great Scottish rugby players of recent times. Renwick said he was so fed up with results and style that he did not intend forking out to attend Murrayfield. "It shows how fickle rugby is," he now says.

Some would say it shows how fickle the likes of Renwick, Armstrong, Calder, Jeffrey, Sole and Aitken are. Sole, for instance, used his column in a Scottish Sunday newspaper to admit he was wrong. And when Renwick, a sprightly centre whose cap record of 52 Gavin Hastings has just passed, moans about the way Scotland have been playing, it seems his complaint has been answered.

Morgan calls it "tinkering" but, however subtle, what happened at Parc des Princes was some way removed from the obsessive rucking of successful Scottish tradition. The greater avoidance of contact and the swifter moving of the ball away from it have given Scotland a more rounded, not to mention more exciting, game.

Thus improved form, selection, attitude and tactics have between them begotten improved confidence which begets improved results which begets improved confidence etc etc: at last, an upward spiral, with Gavin Hastings's try and conversion to beat France perfectly emblematic of a new era.

They also consigned the grainy black-and-white footage of the 1969 winning try at Stade Colombes to history. "Gavin's try was a hundred times better than the one I scored," Telfer said. "Mine is strictly archive stuff now, and that is where it should now be consigned for ever."

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