Allan Massie: Finn Russell is the best fly-half available to the Lions, but Gatland favours more conservative 10s
One keeps muttering about a return to normality while nevertheless feeling that what we endure now has come to seem normal as matches are called off because players in one club have failed Covid tests.
On the one hand the wretched little virus has spawned a more infectious mutant strain. On the other the vaccine is being rolled out even though its first beneficiaries are of an age which means most are unlikely to be lacing their boots or queuing at the turnstiles.
Back in the early autumn one had some reason to hope that a return to the old normality would allow spectators to attend the Six Nations matches, at least in limited numbers. This doesn’t seem likely, for the two rounds in February anyway. Yet one notes that 30,000 cricket fans were admitted to each day of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne – that’s just under a third of the MCG’s capacity. Applying the same principle you might allow a crowd of 25,000, socially distanced, at Twickenham for the Calcutta Cup on the first weekend of the tournament. Perhaps.
Some Scots of the glass more than half-empty school may mutter that, in view of our dismal record there – four victories in more than a hundred years – we might have a better chance if the match was played behind closed doors. They might support this gloomy opinion by remarking that England were anything but impressive in a silent Twickenham when they struggled to beat a young second-string French team.
Enough of that. Let’s look forward. England will start favourites for the tournament, first because they are the reigning champions, second because they don’t have to go to Paris. They have three home games, while France have only two. However, both England and France have to go to Dublin, England on the last day, March 20.
We have three games at Murrayfield, Wales in round 2, Ireland in round 4 and Italy on the last day. Even if, pessimistically, you write off our chance of victory at Twickenham and the Stade de France – and history may seem to justify that pessimism – it’s still a season in which three wins are within our capability, assuming, that is, that we shake off the uncertainty that recently seems to afflict us when we face Ireland. I wonder if this isn’t provoked by the dominance of Leinster in the Pro14. Given that perhaps a third of the likely Scottish starting XV don’t play in that league, there’s no good reason for such an inferiority complex.
Much of the chatter throughout the Six Nations will be devoted to selection for the Lions in the summer. Given that Warren Gatland has never shown much enthusiasm for Scots and has, quite reasonably, said that to impress him away form counts more than victories at home, we will surely need a better than usual tournament if the Scottish representation is to be bigger than in Gatland’s previous Lions squads. It probably doesn’t help that some of our best candidates play in positions – lock and flanker, for instance – where competition is very keen.
Finn Russell is the best fly-half available to the Lions, but Gatland has always tended to favour more conservative, less daring players at number 10. One might of course argue that given South Africa’s forward power and their halves’ tendency to kick long from their own half, a varied and adventurous game might give the Lions their best chance; but I doubt if this argument would appeal to Gatland, let alone convince him.
In April, by which time one hopes the vaccination programme is fully advanced, we have the new Rainbow Cup involving all the Pro14 clubs and the four South African provinces that have dropped out of the Southern Hemisphere’s now seemingly doomed Super Rugby tournament. One assumes Gatland will have his eye on this. Given their stuttering season in which most games have unavoidably been played without their international players, both Glasgow and Edinburgh can look forward to this new challenge with enthusiasm, though not, I suppose, without apprehension.
This has been a dismally blank time for amateur club rugby – which is to say for almost all who play the game, for those stalwarts who keep clubs going, and for the loyal supporters of their home club. Let us hope the clouds soon lift and this year comes to seem like a bad dream. It would be nice to think that normality might return in April with the round of Sevens tournaments – not only in the Borders. They were among the first things cancelled last spring. It would be good if they were among the first to return, in familiar guise, as if we were waking from a troubled night to a bright dawn.
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