Early though it may be to trumpet a revival for Scottish rugby, the impact of Vern Cotter on and off the field was already evident.
Early though it may be to trumpet a revival for Scottish rugby, the impact of Vern Cotter on and off the field is already evident.
In the immediate aftermath of a man-of-the-match performance that yielded three assists, two clean breaks, 47 metres made and 14 points kicked, Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw declared: “I’ve got the spring back in my step.”
The line from the diminutive Borderer might just as easily have been attributed to any of the near-37,000 supporters departing Murrayfield after Saturday evening’s 41-31 thumping of Argentina.
The Scots played with ambition and vigour, racking up the points and showing just a touch of the sort of swagger along the backline that only comes with confidence and freedom.
Everyone was eager to get their hands on the ball. The forwards, bossed by Laidlaw – himself silencing many recent critics – carried with purpose, while out wide, the handling was slick and the running potent. It was a most invigorating sight.
Five tries scored, and it could have been more, but for lapses in execution masked by the eventual scoreline.
Jonny Gray, his mind perhaps still clouded by the adrenaline that surely came with his first Test try moments earlier, threw a dummy and was felled when he should have put the speeding Mark Bennett away for a debut touchdown. A phase later, Al Dickinson’s pass to Sean Maitland drifted crudely forward with the winger gunning for the corner flag.
They were helped too by a limp Pumas performance – most unlike Daniel Hourcade’s team who, had they defended so poorly during any of their recent Rugby Championship matches, would have shipped double the points Scotland put past them.
Battle-weary they may have been, but still, they fielded their ever-gristly front-row, and one of the most accomplished midfields in world rugby. That Scotland held their own against the former and bested the latter is an excellent sign.
So too the displays of the youthful and the inexperienced – Adam Ashe was a force with ball in hand and topped the tackle charts by a distance, and if there was a statistic that measured the frustration of an opposing scrum-half, then Rob Harley would romp it so often does he menace at the breakdown.
Gray Jnr called the lineouts – 11 from 11, and a couple of steals to boot – and got through a power of work elsewhere, while Ross Ford, roundly booed by the same spectators a year ago, was accurate with his throwing, and showed glimpses of the dynamic loose play Scotland needs from him more often.
How refreshing, then, to see smiles on faces and points on the scoreboard. Most pleasing of all, however, was the mind-set of the players. Vern Cotter has consulted past heroes, explored the essence of what it means to play for Scotland, and the squad are clearly buying into his philosophy.
“It’s a real team environment,” said debutant Bennett.
“All week we spoke about what it means to play for the country, play for the thistle – it was brilliant to get that across with attacking rugby.”
His sentiments were echoed by Glasgow Warriors teammate, Tommy Seymour, the winger who scored the Scots’ fifth with a smart interception.
“There is a great vibe around the place,” he said.
“That’s not to say there wasn’t one last year but there was a couple of results then that we were disappointed with.
“Greig (Laidlaw) said a very key line in the dressing room before the game about drawing a line and moving past stuff that has happened.
“It’s a huge year for us with the World Cup coming up and we just need to go out and focus on playing consistently and the type of rugby we want to produce. Saturday was one foot in the right direction.”
Twice down to 14 men, the hosts’ tigerish tackling under pressure drew particular praise from Cotter.
“I really enjoyed watching the players play for each other,” said the New Zealander.
“We had men down with yellow cards, and seeing the players get up, encourage and help one another was great. They were working for each other. They were plugging holes, scrambling, and they kept pressure on their attack.
“I thought we varied our play, which is important against teams: kicking into space, running short side, running open, running off nine at the breakdown.
“There are certainly things to work on – we’re not getting carried away, I assure you. We’re playing the best team in the world next week.”
Indeed, were such a late lapse, losing 21 points in the final 12 minutes, to recur in six days’ time, it would be magnified considerably by the panache of the All Blacks.
The omens are positive, but the recent history of Scottish rugby is peppered with false dawns. Consistency now becomes the buzzword, and though victory on Saturday is improbable, as Bennett says: “if we go out there trying to contain them, we’re just going to play into their hands.”