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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Scotland are still – maybe permanently? – a work in progress

Attack/skills coach AB Zondagh is juggling with his new charges.
Attack/skills coach AB Zondagh is juggling with his new charges.

What has happened to Scotland’s attack? The chorus after Cardiff seems to agree that the men in blue have lost their way on the way forward.

The new defensive system and resilience are great, everyone’s agreed. But it’s now claimed, their development have been at the expense of flair and invention. Yes, even with Finn Russell at the helm.

It’s far too simplistic. I thought for a time that Scotland got lost focusing on defence and kicking after the 2019 World Cup, but it was simply growing pains. I’m inclined to think that Cardiff was the same thing.

Wales bossed Scotland tactically

First, a nod of acknowledgement to Wales – they bossed that game tactically almost as comprehensively as Ireland bossed them the previous week.

Scotland have talked a lot about having a manipulative kicking game, and actually succeeded in large part against England. However in Cardiff Wales won the vast majority of the (many) kicking exchanges and it was they, through Dan Biggar but chiefly Liam Williams, who manipulated Scotland.

The way Williams repeatedly pulled Stuart Hogg out of position on pointless kick return chases will have surely been noted at Oriam this week. The captain needs to stay in the backfield more.

Scotland still got to within three points of Wales being tactically hamstrung. There were other little issues – why was Jonny Gray allowed to stay on for 80 minutes with an obviously restricting ankle problem, for example.

Russell had one of his less-than-inspired days. Discipline at the breakdown, once referee Nic Berry had clearly set out his stall for the day, was just dreadful.

All fixable. And remember that Scotland have gone through a big backroom change recently that has still to bed in.

Zondagh still to put his footprint on Scotland

Since he started to delegate a lot more after the 2019 World Cup, Gregor Townsend has chosen well. Pieter de Villiers changed the scrummage. John Dalziel has tightened the maul. Steve Tandy has arrived as maybe the best defence coach in the game.

Mike Blair, Townsend’s chief lieutenant and attack/skills coach, continued on the probable path to being Gregor’s eventual successor when he took the Edinburgh job. The appointment of AB Zondagh as Blair’s replacement was regarded as something of a coup.

Zondagh came from Toulouse where he was in charge of maybe the most effective attacking team in Europe. Having Antoine Dupont and Romain N’Tamack run that show helps, obviously, but ABZ is one of those deep thinkers and innovators Townsend clearly prefers.

But we’re only four months in and it’ll take more time for him to put his bootprint on Scotland. There’s been some little examples (the two tries against England, the one against South Africa) and maybe we’ll see some more this weekend against France.

But if you’re hoping for a flatline of consistency from Scotland, remember our recent history and that nobody’s advance is linear. France’s certainly hasn’t been.

Super Rugby Pacific points to a structured, inclusive future

Unnoticed to most in the north, the new Super Rugby got underway in earnest last week.

After the Covid-affected 2020 and 2021, this is the ‘Pacific’ format with the South African, Japanese and Argentinian franchises absent. The five New Zealand and Australian teams have instead been joined by two Islander teams, the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika.

Covid has taken care of the Samoan team’s first two games, sadly. But the Drua played in Week One and a 40-10 loss to the Waratahs was not as brutal a loss as some expected.

It’ll take time for the two new teams to bed in. The game in the Pacific Islands needs promoted and nurtured regardless of whether the two teams are self-sustaining at the outset. One hopes the NZRFU and Rugby Australia are sincere and in for the long haul.

Obviously, some economies of scale were at work in this new arrangement. Everyone had got tired with the 22-hour flights and 11 hour time difference between Cape Town and Auckland.

The hemispherical divide in rugby has always been an odd thing anyway, formulated in an entirely different era. South Africa seem minded to tear it up for good, sending their provinces to the URC and keen to see the Springboks, inevitably it now seems, in a Six-Seven-Eight Nations.

The absence of Japan and Argentina in the new Super Rugby is unfortunate but could be temporary. The Nations League concept was shelved because of nervousness about Six Nations relegation and exhausted players four years ago. It’s being refloated by World Rugby.

Two ‘conferences’ of eight, promotion and relegation

It’s early days. But the idea seems to be Japan, Argentina, Canada and the USA forming a ‘conference’ of eight with New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Samoa.

Obviously, that would mean an enlarged competition in what used to be the North. South Africa and Georgia join the Six Nations. Promotion/relegation with a second tier of eight European and/or African nations.

This, rather than the regressive move of replacing Italy with the Springboks, is surely the way forward. Having Italy is financially beneficial to the Six Nations (I know, but this still matters).

South Africa claim to make 60% of the revenues in SANZAR so there is a clear impact there. Surely the championship can well afford to take the hit of bringing either Georgia, Romania or Portugal.

Stumbling block to this panacea? The schedule as it stands, and not increasing the burden on the players.

But that’s all part of the new Nations League discussions as well. A manageable and worldwide order that (at least in part) satisfies all stakeholders, especially the English and French club owners.