by ALAN LORIMER
WHAT are we going to do about a problem called restarts? Just in case you’ve missed out on watching Scotland over the past decade, this is a crucial area of the game that has damaged the Scots time and again. It has hurt and it has haunted; and although it didn’t prove deadly in this instance, the Samoa game showed that, like a winter virus, it can remain in the system for longer than is healthy.
A pretty useful ground rule which has been taught to aspiring rugby players for generations is that after scoring you should always ensure that the next set-piece takes place in opposition territory.
Against Samoa, Scotland’s restart weakness was palpable. Twice in the second half, after the Scots had scored, their South Sea opponents were able to reply with worrying immediacy. It was as though it was a precondition of playing in this match that tries had to be scored in pairs.
And just what will New Zealand do to Scotland this coming Saturday if the inability to secure restarts continues? Surely the fear this thought provokes will be the driver for some serious corrective training this week.
There is a school of thought that offers an explanation for the restart problem in Scottish rugby, which is that we can’t practise this skill because there are not enough kickers in the country able to make the ball hover high from a drop-out. But, hang on, that kind of kick is what you see all the time in international sevens rugby? Maybe a message there.
If the restart problem needs addressing then so does the defensive structure at the contact area, because that allowed the heavy Samoan forwards to come straight through the (open) gate. And surely that will be a point not unnoticed by next week’s opponents ahead of their Murrayfield visit.
Given Samoa’s pedigree in sevens rugby – they have been winners of the World Series – Scotland might have expected to face a side prepared to move the ball wide. But in the event, it was the blokes who don’t normally play the abbreviated game who caused the problems. But all good preparation for New Zealand when Scottish physicality is bound to be targeted.
“They showed their forward power,” admitted Scotland coach Gregor Townsend afterwards. “They’re heavy players and they run hard. If we give up possession in our 22 area it’s then difficult to defend.”
The Samoans one-pass rugby, their forwards’ ability to retain possession, their off-loading and their strength near the line nearly cancelled out all the good – and they were good – scores Scotland had achieved.
Still, winning is about scoring more points than your opponents, and in this respect Scotland, as in their 2015 World Cup match against Samoa, were on the right side of this balance.
Autumn Tests allow new players to be tried out and the Samoa game was no exception. George Turner, Jamie Bhatti and Chris Harris came off the bench at a late stage in the game [perhaps to the detriment of valuable continuity because with the benefit of hindsight we can say that the game was far more finely balanced at this stage than most appreciated], while Darryl Marfo was in the starting fifteen.
The largely unproven loose-head was under a lot of scrutiny. In the event, the Edinburgh front-row came through his debut game with plus points. His opening shot was in the first play when he effected a turnover that ultimately led to Stuart Hogg’s 90th second try.
Then there was a big blitz tackle that again secured ball for Scotland, and after 22 minutes the new prop again fought hard to achieve further turnover ball. Five minutes before the break, Marfo made another good contribution with a ‘soft hands’ pass to Zander Fagerson, whose ground-gaining charge set up the ruck from which the ball was spun wide for Huw Jones to score.
Against New Zealand, it is hard to imagine it will take as long as 38-minutes (as it did on Saturday) before Scotland’s scrum is tested on their own put-in, and Marfo will be up against a far more experienced tighthead than Donald Brighouse – but for the time being, the 27-year-old should take satisfaction from a job well done.