The new power of Scotland

Five Nations' Championship: Scottish coach draws on All Black magic to perfect a game plan and fulfil a grand ambition; Chris Rea applauds the side who have disproved their critics again
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IF, AT THE beginning of this international season, the odds against Scotland winning the Grand Slam were to be measured on the scale of space, the likelihood of them confounding those odds was at least within the realms of earthly reality.

The habits we critics have each season of laying bare Scotland's obvious weaknesses rather than extolling their hidden strengths is one that is devilishly hard to break. After all, the former still manifestly outweighs the latter; so that they cannot be ignored. If, on occasions, the Scots have ingloriously lived up to their advance billing they have overturned the form book too often ever again to be taken seriously as underdogs.

There have of course been times in recent memory when they have been grievously wrong-footed. The defeat by the South Africans last season exposed a lack of preparation and selectorial eccentricity of stunning magnitude. Yet, in the space of a few weeks, and with a subtle change to the battle orders, the Scots reached respectability against Canada. Still not enough, we thought, to avoid a whitewash in the Five Nations' Championship. In the event Scotland finished runners-up to England and, of the four home countries in the World Cup, were the only ones to play anywhere near their potential.

This season, however, the pundits surely got it right. Only the most foolhardy could ignore the incompetence of a side which failed to beat Western Samoa and lost to Italy. But, lo and behold, the Scots have once again crushed their critics with a style and exuberance which proves that effective rugby can also be attractive. That much they learned from studying the All Blacks at close quarters during the World Cup. Richie Dixon, the Scottish coach, like his predecessor Jim Telfer, has never been afraid to conceal his admiration for the New Zealanders' approach to the game. "There was no greater exhilaration during the World Cup than watching the All Blacks," Dixon said. "The South Africans may have had the best defence but no one could match the All Blacks in attack and I knew which one I wanted to copy."

When Telfer, now Scotland's director of rugby, was single-mindedly imposing New Zealand's rucking game on the Scots throughout the Eighties, Dixon was taking his first tentative steps into the coaching arena with the Under-21 side. Continuity in their coaching strategy has always been of paramount importance to the Scots and when, following Dougie Morgan's retirement last season, Dixon was joined at the helm by David Johnston, it was the reunification of a partnership which, at the outset, had seemed a most unlikely alliance. Dixon, the blunt uncomplicated Borderer, and Johnston, the cerebral solicitor from Edinburgh, sufficiently gifted to have played professional football for Heart of Midlothian and rugby for Watsonians and Scotland. "We first teamed up as coaches to the Glasgow side in 1988," Dixon said, "and since then we have made four overseas tours together."

It was during those tours that the bond of mutual respect was forged. The vision of how Scotland should be playing the game and their ideas as to how that could be achieved are remarkably similar. "We both recognised the reality that the Scots, because of their lack of natural resources, must not only make a little go a hell of a long way, but that we must adapt more quickly than most to changing circumstances."

Hence, in the wake of the Springboks defeat last season, an entirely new game plan was devised for the forwards. By the time the international championship kicked off, it was close to being perfected. "That is what we have done again this season,"Dixon said. "We treated the weeks between September and December as an experimental period, almost like an off- season." During this time the Scots worked intensively on their individual skills and in Dixon's terminology "teased out the game", interweaving tried and tested strands with new and innovative threads, imperceptibly altering the shape and the patterns of play.

Self-expression is never discouraged at any of these sessions and for Dixon, a flanker converted from the wing in his playing days, there is a perverse pleasure in seeing forwards attempt the same sleight of hand practised so bewitchingly by Gregor Townsend. One suspects, though, that along with Jim Telfer, Dixon has his heart in his mouth every time a forward takes off on a flight of fantasy.

Dixon denies that his instinctive conservatism has, in the past, coloured his judgement of Townsend and hindered his progress. "On the contrary, I have always recognised him to be an outstanding if occasionally outrageous talent whose best position is at stand-off. But what I have tried to impress upon him is the importance of timing. In other words it's not what you do that matters so much as when you do it." Dixon knows that Townsend's bounteous gifts are not coach-induced but God given, but in acknowledging that he recognises the importance of the supporting cast. "Without the superhuman efforts of our tight five forwards and denied the accuracy of Bryan Redpath's pass, so many of Gregor's skills would be stillborn."

Dixon's most pressing task is to lower his players' sights from the distant dream of a Grand Slam match against England at Murrayfield to the immediate reality of Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. "It won't be easy. I liked the look of the Welsh halves at Twickenham and if we give Wales the sniff of an opportunity they'll be hard to beat, especially in front of their own crowd."

Dixon permits himself the thought that, should Scotland succeed, he might finally emerge from the giant shadows cast over his coaching career by Telfer and Ian McGeechan. He has, he believes, found his niche in life as rugby development officer with the Lothian Regional Education Department. He is introducing the game into Edinburgh's secondary schools, implanting new disciplines into receptive minds and seeking to build a broader and stronger base for Scotland's future. The present, he hopes, can look after itself.