View from the back-row: Then there were two

Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

by BEN CAIRNS

IT’S uncanny how often it occurs to Scottish players on the brink of Lions Test selection. Just think Sandy Carmichael, Euan Murray and Doddie Weir. Think poor Simon Taylor, who managed the ‘double’ – Australia in 2001 and New Zealand four years later. Now Stuart Hogg has been stricken by the Curse of Caledonia, something almost conventional in Scottish rugby.

Until his freak injury last Saturday Hogg was a virtual certainty to start against the All Blacks at Eden Park on June 24. Head coach Warren Gatland has a notorious fixation with all things Welsh (12 tourists from a country that finished a miserable fourth in the Six Nations) but there was no way he could have picked struggling Leigh Halfpenny ahead of X-factor Hogg. Not this time.

As for the two, so-far undamaged, Scots: Tommy Seymour and Greg Laidlaw look likely to have to rely on the injuries of others for Test places. It’s a dispiriting thought but, as Scottish coaches are wont to say, let’s look on the positive side.

Having covered the last All Blacks v Lions series in 2005, I can guess how New Zealand will approach the three Tests and how it will start and how it will end.  The last tour finished 3-0 and a number of careers, whether physically or mentally, were damaged for life. Seymour and Laidlaw are well out of it.

By some miracle, too, WP Nel, the most damaging tighthead in world rugby, stayed injured long enough to avoid a Lions call-up, recovered in time for the Barbarians match on May 28 and now making his formidable impact on Gregor Townsend’s summer tour! Unlike Wales, England and Ireland, who are certain to lose players in New Zealand, Townsend has been granted time to work with what amounts to a full squad ahead of the autumn internationals and the Six Nations of 2018.

As for Hogg, his fractured cheekbone seems certain to need surgery and at least three months away from contact. His most likely return will be the autumn tests … and New Zealand at Murrayfield, on November 18.

What goes around comes around.

ANYONE who has been to Murrayfield, or seen the TV highlights, will recognise the seating area allotted to coaches, camera crews and the press, located near the back of the West Stand.

It’s a great place to watch a game. The views are outstanding and far better than anything at Twickenham, Cardiff, the Stade de France and the old Lansdowne Road. For a coach, too, it’s almost ideal.

It was the former Scotland head coach Matt Williams, a man I always regarded as a sort of likeable shyster, who decided, shortly after his arrival in December 2003, that from then on he needed panoramic views of the action from high above. The result was the birth of the Eichmann-style bulletproof glass booth, built by the SRU at ludicrous expense. When you have a new coach you tend to accept his foibles.

The box remains Matt’s sole legacy to his two and a half years at Murrayfield and it has certainly had its uses, notably when the reinforced glass saved staff from serious injury when a frustrated colleague attacked one of the windows during a 19-22 defeat by Italy in 2015.

I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but the arrival of Williams and his pod were my first views of a Scottish rugby coach in full mode of laptops, walkie-talkies and analysis gear. I hadn’t a clue what they were for and assumed that the SRU employed someone to produce a sort of sophisticated equivalent to the Man-by-Man ratings beloved by newspapers (and loathed by players).

It was Williams’ successor, Frank Hadden, who finally put me right, inviting me to his small office in the corner of West and North Stands where he showed off his box of tricks. It was an enlightening experience.

Hadden, who preferred working at pitch level to life in the glass box, had some eight or nine laptops in full operation with two or three members of staff doing the analysis. This covered everything from the basic performances of individual players to the nitty-gritty of possession, territory, carries, metres gained, tackles made and tackles missed. Hadden, fervent and passionate about everything, would spend two or three days on this post-match and while I was mightily impressed it did seem a long way from actual ‘rugby’.

I think Hadden, without ever admitting it, may have agreed. All this sophisticated hardware seemed a million miles from his days at Merchiston Castle School where he regularly produced a succession of dominant 1st XV teams capable of producing five or six tries a game.

It was only much later that he admitted he’d have preferred coaching at Merchiston to coaching at Murrayfield, though this may have owed much to constant criticism from the Scottish media, of which I was one. Whatever it was, by 2014 he was back working in schools rugby and building a Scottish mini-league with the intention of producing national stars of the future.

As for the Man-by-Man ratings, I still open the sports pages to see which journalist has made the biggest fool of himself, as in The Scotsman (via the Press Association) last Saturday:

“13 JONATHAN DAVIES – 7. The teak-tough centre showed exactly why he will be front-runner to start the All Blacks Tests with a bullish performance”.

Davies went off injured after 29 minutes so this is either the best centre since Philippe Sella, the writer was Welsh … or he should be employing Frank and his laptop.

 

About Jeff Connor 12 Articles
JEFF CONNOR was born in Manchester, went to school at Bury and lives in Lytham. He has worked for a number of national newspapers including the Daily Express, Daily Star, Scottish Sun, Scotland on Sunday and Scottish Mail on Sunday. He is the author of 12 books, including: Wide Eyed and Legless, the classic account of the 1987 Tour de France; The Lost Babes, the moving story of the Munich air disaster; The Philosophy of Risk, a biography of the tragic mountaineer Dougal Haston; Pointless, a season with Britain’s worst football team; Up and Under, an inside account of the 2001 Lions tour to Australia; and Giants of Scottish Rugby, which contains exclusive interviews with 40 of the nation’s greatest players. He recently published his first novel: Looking for Lulu.