Wednesday 7 December 2016

Six nations: Pivotal moment for nations at the crossroads

Andy Robinson has rung the changes for today but his team, like Scottish rugby in general, may have to up the pace if they are to survive, writes Brendan Fanning

Published 27/02/2011 | 05:00

Last week in the build-up to this afternoon's Test against Scotland, one of the coaches involved was asked about his team's current problem with stepping on the accelerator when the circumstances demanded a change-down in gear.

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Why was it his team were driving hard-earned chances into the wall? As it happened, the coach in question knew exactly why.

"We've got to realise that, yeah, there's going to be linebreaks; we're going to get in their 22," he said. "It's composure, looking at where the defence is and then just execution of basic skills. It's over-enthusiastic. We've got to have patience in that area. Defences are good when you get in the 22. You don't have full-backs dropping back; you have a lot of players on the line so you might have to go through a number of phases, get a penalty, work really hard to get an overlap, take the space and score a try."

That could have been Declan Kidney or Alan Gaffney but it was neither. In fact, it was Gregor Townsend, Scotland's backs' coach. When you heard his response you thought of how Scotland and Ireland have something in common just now. Indeed how much we have shared over the years, from the social profile of the game in each country to how our two nations were joined at the hip in the steadfast upholding of the old and regressive amateur ways. And then you realised that all that common ground was in another era. There has been wholesale rezoning since then. There may be an overlap in a technical area on the field of play, but off it we are on different planets.

On a typically cold December day in 2003, we fetched up in Murrayfield for the inaugural final of the Celtic Cup. Ulster had struggled since winning the European Cup four years previously while Edinburgh at last were looking like a side who might achieve something. A crowd of nearly 18,000 -- bolstered by the contingent of Ulster students transplanted to Scottish universities -- came along, which in the context of the day seemed reasonable, and in today's terms, gargantuan.

This was an Edinburgh team with a forward pack containing Nathan Hines, Scott Murray, Dougie Hall, Simon Taylor and, one of the best Kiwi exports ever, Todd Blackadder. The younger models of Blair and Paterson were at half-back. And it was before Brendan Laney stopped looking like a good rugby player.

Edinburgh would win five of their six pool games in the Heineken Cup that season. They were topped by Toulouse only on bonus points. It was enough for them to qualify for their first -- and only -- quarter-final (where they lost in Toulouse). We didn't know it at the time but we were watching the golden era of professional rugby in Scotland.

For them it had all started under pressure. The pressure of finance, never mind the mental burden of having no appetite for pay for play. The SRU were putting the finishing touches to the new Murrayfield, which cost €55m, just as they were being thrust into the professional era. At the same time, the IRFU were laying out €1.27m for a site in Newlands which remains untouched. So the new age represented two climbs with altogether different gradients for these bedfellows who had no appetite whatsoever for scaling anything: the Scots set out saddled with debt; the Irish were weighed down only with cash they didn't want to spend.

The Scots' debt still hasn't gone away. SRU chief executive Gordon McKie, who was appointed in 2005, has been credited with reducing their burden from €30m to €18m by cutting everything from the Borders operation to salaries to budgets across the board, including the two pro teams -- Edinburgh and Glasgow -- who are now run on a shoestring tied to head office. McKie is an accountant, and for sure the figures look better. But it's hard to see how they can ever head in the opposite direction.

Very few people watch professional rugby in Scotland. Edinburgh average 2,700 for home games played in a stadium that holds nearly 25 times that amount. Glasgow come in well behind that, based in a stadium on the wrong side of town and where the smattering of punters are choreographed onto the side of Firhill opposite the cameras.

Gradually players have been leaving both clubs. Why would they stay? Max Evans was the most recent to announce he was heading to France, and there was nothing in the pot to suggest he might not take a route well worn now by Hugo Southwell, the Lamont brothers, Dan Parks and Kelly Brown.

With dwindling quality neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow will win anything. With no success their crowds will only get worse. Already there is a reliance on exiles to fill the Scotland team -- the breakdown was 9-6 in their favour in the starting xv against South Africa in November -- and even the good calendar year for Andy Robinson's side in 2010 finished with a November series that was televised at the last minute. We struggle to conceive in this country of the IRFU not having a deal with a broadcast partner. How can you plan ahead in those circumstances?

Of course there has been some success over there. The Scots have been waiting a while now for the unveiling of the new Five-Year Plan, but at least the old one succeeded in increasing the number of players involved in the game across the board, and in keeping their amateur club game in reasonable shape. They reckon they have increased to 38,000 from toddlers to golden oldies pulling on some sort of gear from time to time (Ireland have 153,000 all in). Italy as it happens, with a much bigger population and economy, have 70,000. And they are confident of doubling that total by 2015.

Gordon McKie meanwhile is on record that the international game and the club level are the tiers that focus his attention. That's an interesting diet, where he has extracted the meat from the sandwich. In Ireland, it was the meat of Munster and Leinster and Ulster that built the Ireland side. You wonder for how long Scotland will be able to sustain a competitive Test team with a crumbling tier immediately beneath them. And for how long they will be able to put a decent look on attendances at Murrayfield where yet again today -- not helped by a Sunday fixture with a team from a basket case economy -- will fall well short of the 67,000 capacity.

It was against this backdrop that we started looking at this pivotal point in Ireland's and Scotland's seasons, wondering if defeat today would propel the home team towards a record low attendance in their final game, against Italy, where they would be 0/4 and knowing that even a big win there would do nothing to brighten their future.

So never mind the contract that takes Andy Robinson up to 2015 -- will they still have two pro clubs by then? -- this is real pressure. The sort of heat Declan Kidney has never had to endure either with Munster or Ireland. His reaction to the news that the Scots have been savaged in the media in the wake of the humiliation at home by Wales?

"Is that right? That doesn't cheer me up. I'd be disappointed to hear that news because, like ourselves, they're very proud. I think that now is a dangerous time to play them."

Kidney remembers well the days when we couldn't buy a win in Edinburgh and he reckons the Scots will be able to draw some confidence from their result in Croke Park last March. The difference is that back then Dan Parks was playing at the absolute limit of his very limited game, assisted by the aggression and directness of the excellent Graeme Morrison, and supported by a back row who were all fit and in-form.

Yes, the same back row are on duty again today but Johnnie Beattie is barely back off the phsyio's table. As for the other two elements, Morrison is badly missed and at inside centre they will have in Sean Lamont a player with no experience of the position at all. Is this the man you would want to put outside your new flyhalf who will be starting his first Six Nations game?

Gregor Townsend thinks so, and is effusive about what the strapping Lamont will give them down the middle. But it's not the same thing -- doing it in a congested midfield rather than coming off your wing. And while his opposite number today Gordon D'Arcy may have form only in the rear-view mirror, at least he has vast experience of the position.

It's the 10s however who give us the most interesting match-up today: Andy Robinson turns to a greenhorn whose first thought is to run, and Declan Kidney calls up a centurion who plays the percentages better than any outhalf in world rugby.

Ruaridh Jackson was 23 the day of the Wales game but kindly the management decided not to ruin his birthday by bringing him on. Maybe Leo Cullen should have claimed the same thing? Whatever, Jackson will be a target for Seán O'Brien, currently Ireland's most effective carrier, just as O'Gara will always be a focus for the opposition. Significantly, the Scots have loaded their team today with carriers.

How Ireland put those carriers to ground will define the mood of the away team who are struggling on the penalty count here. Kidney is claiming that mauls have been reffed as tackles and Ireland have been unfairly punished. Does he think his lobbying has been listened to in IRB land?

"Yeah, I think it's starting to be recognised now," he says. "I'd like to think we made inroads into that, so that if we're double-tackling a fella and one of the opposition comes in to hold the ball, then that is a maul. That has been recognised during the week and I'm assured that will be adjudicated on accordingly."

If it is then it will go a long way towards giving Ireland an edge in an area where they have been suffering. Moreover it would dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd who will be desperate for their team to play at the pace which was their default in the days when Craig Chalmers was at 10. Remarkably, he has never been on a losing team against Ireland. That's nine games and nine wins, stats from another era. He reckons however that what served him so well -- a sound kicking game -- it still at a premium.

"I agree that Robinson had to make a change at flyhalf but Scotland still need a good kicking game to put Ireland's dangerous back three under pressure," he says. "It was important when I played and it's just as important today. We have to ask them questions in defence, mix things up, come at them from different angles and constantly make them think. Look after the ball in the red zone, have patience and the breakthrough will come."

You think an Irish coach could have come out with the same line?

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