State of the Nation: Scotland

Date published: March 19 2014

As we do at the end of a major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Scotland!

As we do at the end of every major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Scotland!

These are worrying times for Scottish rugby. On the field, the national team is floundering its way through a “transitional” phase, while off it, supporters grow disillusioned with the administrative status quo.

“Transitional” is a funny word, and in this case, its use is best characterised as papering over the glaring cracks that have appeared in Scotland's foundations: the period is a transitional one in the sense that the team have gone from bad in November to worse in March after an encouraging 2013 Six Nations.

Scott Johnson trumpets all this as a journey, a stairway to the World Cup in 2015, where Scotland must peak. So far, it's proved to be more rocky road to ruin than steps to success: a record defeat, two beatings to nil on home turf, a tournament low of 47 points scored in five matches, matched by a tournament high of 60 penalties conceded across the Six Nations.

Scots will be praying that the suggested synonyms for “transitional” – temporary, intermediate, provisional – ring true, and soon, or their team could sink yet further from the SRU's preposterous target of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup next year.

It is another of those synonyms – makeshift – that best describes Johnson's selection policy. His goals as head coach – namely bolstering the depth of the national squad and driving up competition for Test places – are laudable, and indeed achievable. But his methods range from the incongruous to the unfathomable.

The masterplan, the great voyage Scotland have embarked upon, is threatening to derail over a year from its destination. Johnson's November rotations made little sense, and seemed completely at odds with his remarks regarding the importance of form.

The theme continued throughout the Six Nations, with the treatment of captain Kelly Brown an especially bizarre and unsavoury episode. It was a dismal one-win campaign, ending with a foolish red card, an irresistible red tide and a lot of red faces down in Cardiff.

Are there in fact any morsels of comfort for the Scots to cling to? Well, here's the dirty little secret. Scotland, whisper it, have a pretty tasty team when the selections and tactics are right. A back row of Brown, John Barclay and Dave Denton is none too shabby. Chris Cusiter – a better all-round scrum-half than Greig Laidlaw – is a match for most in the Six Nations. Tim Visser, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg provide a trio of attacking outside backs few would care to face, while Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar appear to be the answer to a long-standing midfield conundrum.

Problems remain at fly-half, where Duncan Weir is the right man for the job despite his interception horror-show against the French. Weir's skill-set is good though unspectacular, and his rugby revolves around confidence and character, both of which he will gain as his Test career progresses. Ruaridh Jackson is a better attacking option but prone to bouts of flakiness and Tom Heathcote has been largely unused at Bath this season; Weir is worth persisting with.

Off the field, there are murmurings of a third pro team in the pipeline. Expansion upon the two central belt clubs has to happen, and it surely will in time. But for now, the cash in Scottish rugby is thinly-spread; trying to eek it out over a wider area seems foolish and unlikely.

Johnson now moves upstairs to take on his role as Director of Rugby, in charge of the entirety of the Scottish game. That's a chilling thought given his reign as head coach, and the change that is required in Scottish rugby, but we must now judge him on the impact he has in his new position rather than the failings of his previous tenure.

Vern Cotter jets in from Clermont in the near future, tasked with taking Scotland to the World Cup and beyond. Johnson has hardly laid solid foundations for his arrival, leaving a disjointed national team and a disgruntled supportership in his wake. And the SRU cannot rescind the Australian's DoR appointment any more than it can withdraw its goal to be crowned World Champions next year. Best of luck, Vern.

By Jamie Lyall