Nick Cain: Robbo’s lumbered with Scotland’s Brave boasts

Richie GrayDisney are about to release Brave, an Asterix-clone feelgood fairytale about the ancient Scots. Perhaps Mark Dodson, the Scottish Rugby Union’s chief executive, got a sneak preview, because his recent announcement that Scotland could not only win the 2015 World Cup, but also a Grand Slam to boot, seemed to be fuelled more by an excess of Caledonian pride than hard-headed reasoning.
There’s plenty right with being ambitious and setting your sights high in a professional sport, but when, like Scotland, the targets are set against a backdrop of a Six Nations wooden spoon and a couple of tour victories against Pacific Islands teams habitually lower in the IRB rankings, then being circumspect rather than bullish would seem to be the wisest course.
Dodson, however, took an alternative view, leaving the man at the sharp end, national coach Andy Robinson, with a burden of expectation that an All Black coach, let alone a Scottish one, would find heavy to bear. Many Scots, including a couple of close friends of mine, winced when the SRU’s chief executive used the Union’s AGM to broadcast his plans for world and European domination.
It sounded uncannily like Francis Baron’s ill-fated post 2003 World Cup script, when the former RFU chief executive stipulated that England’s targets over the next four years were to retain their world champion status and win at least two Grand Slams in between. A decade of mediocrity followed with England winning nothing.
Dodson paved the way by denying that he was riding the wave of optimism following an unbeaten summer tour which featured wins over Australia, Fiji and Samoa. He said: “We have thought about this long and hard and it’s certainly not a knee-jerk reaction from the recent wins in the Southern Hemisphere. There’s no reason why we can’t win a World Cup or a Six Nations. We’ve got some fantastic athletes in Scottish rugby who are capable of great things. We are an ambitious Union and we need to set challenging targets.”
CartoonDodson may speak from genuine conviction, and there might even be some grounds for his optimism. Scotland have a crop of exciting players coming through, with full-back Stuart Hogg, fly-half Duncan Weir, tight-head Ed Kalman, lock Richie Gray, No.8 David Denton and openside flanker Ross Rennie foremost among them.
At the same time, after years among the also-rans, Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors have become more competitive, with Edinburgh becoming the first Scottish side to reach the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup last season, and Glasgow finishing fourth in the Pro12 table.
The flipside of the coin is that the Southern Hemisphere wins were achieved by a margin of three points against a depleted Australia side (9-6) in a midweek downpour four days before they played Wales, 12 points against Fiji (37-25), and a single hotly-disputed point over Samoa (17-16). For the record, Scotland are now ninth in the IRB Rankings (having risen from a pre-tour 12th), Samoa 10th, and Fiji 14th.
It is worth pointing out that Scotland have so far failed to achieve the world ranking target set by the SRU’s previous strategic plan, written in 2007, of a top-eight finish by this year. Robinson was also unable to reach the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals – another target – and the former England World Cup-winning coach’s Six Nations win rate of 13 per cent is well short of the projected SRU improvement from 25 per cent to 40 per cent. To cap it all Scotland have failed to fulfil the quota of winning the Six Nations  “at least once by 2012”.
None of which stopped Chris Paterson, the retired Scotland full-back/wing now engaged as an SRU coach, backing the targets set by his new boss. “It’s an ambitious target, but I think it’s good to set ambitious goals,” Paterson  said. “We’ve seen Scotland win three games on tour…and international rugby is so close that could have been zero wins out of three.”
Agreed. It could have been three defeats for Robinson’s tourists.
However, Paterson’s next claim is stretching supposition past its breaking strain: “And, if you turn that on its head, in the Six Nations, Scotland won zero out of five, and certainly the first three could have been wins against England, Wales and France. So you could have been going into the last two games against Ireland and Italy looking for two wins for a Grand Slam. The margins are so, so fine in international rugby and, if you get the small bits right, there’s no reason why you can’t be successful.”
The margins are often small in Test rugby, but usually you get what you deserve. The Scots created more scoring chances last season than their blunt attack had done for years, but their finishing was dire. That is why they lost two very close games, against England and Italy by the tightest of margins – but both times their opponents scored tries where they failed to. Scotland matched France for tries at Murrayfield, two apiece, but the French kept their composure and finished another close encounter more strongly.
Where the other two games against Wales and Ireland are concerned Paterson is as off-beam as his goal-kicking was failsafe. Wales outscored Scotland 3-1, and, even if Hogg’s disallowed try had been awarded, the Welsh always appeared to have the more potent attack. Ireland overran the Scots in Dublin, and a 4-1 try count told the story.
The reality is that Scotland were whitewashed in a far from vintage Six Nations tournament, and although they did not lose by much on the scoreboard in three instances, the fact that they were unable to fashion one win highlights their shortcomings in attack.
Against full-strength Southern Hemisphere opponents that lack of finishing power has usually been exposed even more starkly, and with an autumn schedule that reads New Zealand and South Africa at Murrayfield on consecutive weekends, Robinson could soon find that Dodson has hung a millstone round his neck.
Winning World Cups, and Six Nations titles demands that you can finish off your chances, and perform to the highest level back-to-back. In a World Cup that probably means not only beating one of the stronger Six Nations teams but two from the SANZAR nations within a very short time frame – and that is something the Scots have never come close to achieving.
The saying is ‘Speak softly but carry a big stick’. It may not be like a scene out of Brave, but while Scotland’s stick is small and cracked, Dodson would be better off keeping his counsel.

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