World Cup hopes high with most promising squad since 1999

IRELAND have lost the first three of their four RWC warm-up internationals, but Declan Kidney doesn’t seem to be worried. Maybe he’s never worried. I don’t know. Certainly you never see him looking as Martin Johnson does on a bad day, like a volcano about to erupt. Meanwhile France and Wales can be happy enough with their preliminaries, and Andy Robinson’s low-key approach to the tournament means that we arrive there on the back of three victories. The opposition may not have been the stiffest – Italy twice and Ireland’s second string – but winning is a good habit to form, and certainly better than losing.

Matches against Italy used to be stodgy, with a lot of rolling and grunting mauls. Now they tend to be scrappy, partly because the Italians have become adept at “counter-rucking”. It is years since Scotland regularly delivered quick ruck ball from an advancing platform, and it has got still more difficult to do this now that the practice of counter-rucking has become common. Consequently, last Saturday, both Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter were repeatedly having to dig the ball out under considerable pressure. Given this difficulty it was remarkable how often both were able to get the ball away quickly enough to enable a handling attack to be launched.

The evidence that our two most experienced scrum-halves have recovered from a succession of injuries and are approaching their best form was one of the most pleasing features of the game. Blair also seemed to make more tackles than any other Scottish player, as well as displaying great alertness in charging down Masi’s kick and following up to score the try that put us far enough ahead to make victory all but certain. The scrum-half pecking order is as much in dispute as ever. I would make it Blair, Cusiter, Lawson, but I doubt if Andy Robinson agrees.

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The worrying thing was the set scrum, Alastair Dickinson and Moray Low being in trouble from the start. The teams in our pool all scrummage powerfully. Since there are only four days between our first two matches – Romania and Georgia – it would be asking a lot of Allan Jacobsen to play the full 80 minutes twice. Perhaps the solution will be to have him starting in both, to be replaced by Dickinson as early as possible, depending on how the game is going. The tight head position is less worrying because Euan Murray will be the first back-up for Geoff Cross.

Our difficulties in the scrum may not be entirely due to the front row. Our best scrummaging performances in recent years have come when Jim Hamilton has been one of the locks. This creates another problem for Robinson. Richie Gray is surely a certain starter in the first choice XV. Alastair Kellock is the captain and the best line-out operator, Nathan Hines the best in the close-quarters stuff and the master of the off-load, Hamilton the best scrummager. So which do you go for? Given the likely nature of our opening matches, it would be no surprise to see Hines at 6.

Both the Italian tries came from defensive errors, Rory Lamont being caught flat-footed and getting nowhere near Benvenuti, and Richie Vernon letting the Italian scrum-half slip under his arm to score the second. Defence coach, Graham Steadman, will not have been happy. We can’t afford to give away soft tries, if only because we lack striking power ourselves. This is an experienced squad, but the 30 players have scored only 82 international tries in total, 63 by the backs and 19 by the forwards. Chris Paterson has scored 22 of them, but he has been on that mark for rather a long time now, and nobody else is even in double figures; Sean Lamont is next with 8 in 56 games. Compare this tally with the try-scoring records of Shane Williams and Brian O’Driscoll, to say nothing of southern hemisphere stars. Our comparative lack of fire-power makes defensive solidity all the more important. Against the stronger teams we are not in the position of saying, “You score two tries, we’ll score three.” Yet this looks like our best World Cup squad since 1999.

No one is being taken along to gain experience. There is real competition for a starting-place in almost every position. There are no surprises but one or two players have been coming up fast on the rails. Nick De Luca is the most obvious example. His break against Italy, having first frozen his opponent with a suggestion of taking him on the inside before cutting through on the outside, was the sort of thing one has rarely seen from a Scottish centre since Alan Tait was carving his way through defences.

So roll on New Zealand. Coming top of the group, beating both Argentina and England, is not beyond the team, and this would enable us to avoid a probable quarter-final against New Zealand. Of course France may pull off their RWC trick and beat New Zealand in their pool match. That would be a rough outcome: beat England and then, as a reward, be faced with a quarter-final against the All Blacks, stung by that defeat and the fear of not even reaching the semi-final on their home turf.