State of the Nation: Scotland

Date published: December 4 2013

As we do at the end of every year, we look at the state of affairs in each of the world's leading nations. Next up, Scotland!

As we do at the end of every year, we look at the state of affairs in each of the world's leading nations. Next up, Scotland!

There is a measure of cautious optimism around Murrayfield, despite familiar issues rearing their heads for Scotland in 2013.

Inconsistency plagued the Scots as a solid Six Nations campaign was followed by an injury-hit tour of South Africa, and a largely disappointing trio of November Tests.

Little can be read into that June voyage, so ravaged was it by wounded players, and last month's defeats to South Africa and Australia were entirely expected from a statistical point of view.

But Scott Johnson was keen to stress that this year was about much more than results.

The Australian used the final six Tests of 2013 to broaden his horizons as the build-up to the Rugby World Cup commences, and gave players the chance to stake their claim to a starting berth ahead of next year's Six Nations.

In June he had no option but to dig deeper and deeper into his player pool as bodies piled upon the treatment table. In November, premeditated rotation was the order of the day.

This approach, he argued, would widen Scotland's player base, before a more strengthened, focused methodology was adopted come February 1st and their Six Nations opener in Dublin.

It did ensure Scotland were all the more unlikely to topple either of their heavyweight November opponents thanks to a mishmash of selections and alternations.

The problem Johnson was trying to address was plainly clear though – illustrated perfectly as the hosts crashed to a 28-0 defeat to the Springboks and a narrow loss to the Wallabies six days later.

With participation figures so low in Scotland – there are just two professional team – meaning a desperately small player base, the national side often suffers from an inhibiting lack of depth.

Minus the potency of Stuart Hogg, Matt Scott and Tim Visser from the backline, their replacements visibly struggled to cut the mustard against rugby's big boys last month.

While the hosts enjoyed the lion's share of possession and territory against the Wallabies, and during the second-half against South Africa, they remained unable to cross the try line. Imprecision and indecision at key moments were their undoing. When their opponents had opportunities, they took them.

Quality, creativity and ruthlessness continue to elude the Scottish attack.

Indeed, the identity of the man in charge of kick-starting Scotland's attack is still a mystery.

Johnson has yet to opt permanently for either the confident, assured style of Duncan Weir or the more mercurial talents and vision of Ruaridh Jackson as his first-choice pivot. Bath's Tom Heathcote will remain on the periphery until he can muster some game-time, potentially through a change of club.

Despite recent set-piece woes, the pack remains an area of strength but the inclusion of a genuine openside is a must in the ever-crucial breakdown battle. The absence of quick, clean possession was a sizeable factor in Scotland's impotency.

Captain Kelly Brown (fine player though he is) is not the answer in the number seven jersey – if he finds form and fitness, Ross Rennie should be Johnson's first pick. He is a world-class player, and Scotland produces precious few of those.

Johnson spoke highly of the character of his younger, inexperienced players despite the November defeats, and the attitude of his charges was a definite positive to emerge from a tough month.

With the arrival of Vern Cotter on the horizon, it is important that the coach now decides upon his first-choice XV and picks them regularly with the World Cup now less than two years away.

by Jamie Lyall