It's not all doom and gloom for Scotland despite the dissatisfied mood
It’s not quite clear why. Of course, rugby opinion in Scotland – indeed in most countries – has usually been volatile, victories sending morale soaring, defeats plunging us in gloom and provoking criticism, often fierce. It is all exaggerated, defeat by a narrow margin, even the narrowest being judged disaster.
The real picture is rather different. There are six nations in our northern tournament, four in the southern hemisphere’s. Then there are the three South Sea islanders and Japan. Most of these teams can win or lose against any other without such a defeat being judged disastrous. Moreover, in these days of many more internationals form fluctuates from week to week
There are of course teams that are expected to lose particular matches. It would be a surprise if Japan won at Twickenham this afternoon. Nevertheless, in the 2015 World Cup they beat South Africa, in the 2019 one Scotland and Ireland On the whole few results are a foregone conclusion.
May that be said of Scotland too? Not really. It was disappointing to lose to Australia by single point, though that performance looked better when Australia lost to France by the same slim margin in Paris last week. Back in the summer an under-strength Scotland lost a three match series 2-1 in Argentina, throwing away a winning position in the last game. Singe then Argentina have beaten New Zeaand and then England at Twickenham last week
This recent history gives little reason for Scottish gloom.
Now New Zealand come to Murrayfield after overpowering Wales in Cardiff last week. Only optimists expect a Scottish victory. Expecting one would certainly be ridiculous. Hoping for one isn’t, partly because the All Blacks form has been topsy-turvey. Of course, as everyone knows we have never beaten New Zealand, though we have come close several times and drawn twice. The first Scotland-New Zealand match I attended was in 1954; we lost 3-0, a long range penalty goal being kicked by the great full-back Bob Scott. What was remarkable is that this game came late in our disastrous run of 17 consecutive defeats between1951 and 1955 Eight years later there was a scoreless draw. I missed that game being in Italy at the time. There was another draw in 1983, 25-25, prelude to the 1984 Grand Slam. That match might hanere been won if Peter Dods hadn’t narrowly failed to convert Jim Pollocks’ try from the touch-line. Seven years later David Sole’s Grand Slam winning side lost only 18-21 in Auckland’s Eden Park, the citadel of New Zealand rugby. Remarkably that day, Scotland won the try-count 2-1 and the match turned on a dubious penalty kicked by Grant Fox.
Finally, last time out, five years ago we lost 17-22 at Murrayfield, with Stuart Hogg just failing to cross the try-line in the dying minutes of the game. So the history isn’t entirely one of doom and gloom.
Of course New Zealand start as favourites. They almost always do, and their demolition of Wales was mighty impressive. On the other hand the Welsh forwards were overwhelmed and there is reason to think that the Scotland pack is made of harder material. That said ,if we are to have any chance, the forwards must surely deliver quicker and more secure ball from the breakdown, such as was not supplied to Ali Price in the first half against Fiji last week. Then in the first two autumn internationals we have conceded too many penalties – though one should add that our opponents were even more prodigal in both games.
The return of Finn Russell, who has been in sublime form for Racing 92, adds interest to the match. He has his critics, but to my mind he is one of the three best Scottish fly-halves I have seen – the others being John Rutherford and Gregor Townsend himself. That said, even the most skilful and imaginative fly-halves don’t win matches against the best teams unless the forwards are doing their job and, at the very least, achieving parity. It’s not so much that forwards win matches – though of course they often do; it’s that it is extremely rare in international rugby to win if your pack comes off second best.