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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: It can’t be Groundhog Day for Scotland yet again

Dejected Scots at the end of the last year's game in Cardiff.
Dejected Scots at the end of the last year's game in Cardiff.

It was Groundhog Day last week, and it did not go well.

Punxsutawney Phil, the rodent of preference for the annual February 2 ritual in Pennsylvania, saw his shadow as he emerged from hibernation in bright sunshine. By tradition, this means six more weeks of winter to be endured.

Over at an alternative Canadian version in Val-d’Espoir, Quebec, it turned out even worse.

Fred La Marmotte, their Groundhog, unexpectedly expired overnight before he could even leave hibernation. A stuffed toy substituted – I kid you not – and cast a shadow. I’d feel cheated if I were Quebecois.

Groundhog Day in the modern idiom, of course, is not the Dutch-German tradition observed in the US and Canada, but inspired by the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray is cursed to endure the day over and over again.

For us in Scottish rugby, there’s a threat of this time of year becoming a Groundhog fortnight.

Do you see a trend developing?

Matt Fagerson was badly missed when injured against Wales.

For the third year in succession, Scotland have opened with victory over England. For the third year in a row, they now face Wales. The last two times, they’ve abjectly failed to back up their big win.

And it’s not a new thing confined to these fixtures, either. Seven times Scotland have won the opening game in the Six Nations. They’ve never won their second game.

This week Scotland face Wales at BT Murrayfield with the visitors in a bit of disarray. Wales’ crushing losses to Italy and Georgia at home in 2022 eventually put paid to Wayne Pivac. This despite him taking the team to within a few seconds of a Grand Slam in 2021.

Warren Gatland returned to general euphoria. He duly installed most of his surviving old retainers from the glory days of three Grand Slams. However, hope crashed like a lead balloon in the first 40 minutes against Ireland as the championship favourites raced to a 27-3 lead.

It was 7-7 in the second half (remember that) but it still added up to a 34-10 defeat.

But this is almost – almost – the exact same scenario as last year. Wales hosted Scotland at Cardiff having been eviscerated by Ireland. Scotland came in on the back of a fast finish to beat England 20-17. The Scots were massive favourites.

They lost 20-17 in a game so dreadful it was easily the worst contest of the entire 2022 championship. Scotland really limped through the rest of the year, only coming unleashed in the final game against Argentina.

Wales are very different to England

What was the difference in a just a week last year? Simply, what worked against England, didn’t work against Wales.

Scotland’s tactical kicking game turned the game against England last year. But in Cardiff, the team were tactically out-played in this area by Dan Biggar and Liam Williams. The experienced Lions pair seemed to have the Scotland backfield and Stuart Hogg in particular on a string for the entire afternoon.

Wales also contained, rather than attempt to decapitate, Finn Russell. Last week England still focused on bashing Russell as quickly as possible, Owen Farrell attacking with particular relish.

It worked a little as Russell had a few uncomfortable moments, but at others – including three of Scotland’s four tries – it left space in the backfield for Scotland to target.

Wales’ tactics last year were much more successful,. Russell had arguably his poorest game in a Scotland shirt. You can expect them to have the same gameplan this time.

And don’t ignore that second half in Cardiff last week. Ireland had every right to be coasting, yes, but the penalty count against them was double figures in the second 40.

The Irish are the most disciplined team in world rugby – they don’t give up penalties unless they’re under severe pressure.

A key difference is the captain

Sctoland captain Jamie Ritchie missed last year’s game in Cardiff.

So what’s different for Scotland?

They played far better against England this year than last. There seems to be a much more relaxed and open philosophy in the attacking gameplan. Saturday was the third away test in a row they’ve scored four tries.

I’m pretty sure Scotland won’t get suckered into the same aimless kicking game as last year. The kicking returns at Twickenham were usually well judged and well-supported, specifically for the eventual winning try.

Scotland have a constant threat on opposition lineout – and look safer on their own ball – with Richie Gray restored. Sione Tuipulotu is now established in midfield, and Ben White has added a new dimension at 9.

There’ll be a supportive packed house at Murrayfield.The players, to a man, appreciated the extra support that seemed to be in the Twickenham stands last week.

But I think the biggest difference will be Jamie Ritchie. He missed out with injury last year, and the recast backrow then did not function as it should have, especially after Matt Fagerson was forced off after half an hour.

In 2020 and in 2021, the now-skipper was a dominant figure for Scotland on the ground against Wales’ jackallers.

But the bottom line is the team are acutely conscious that there are no excuses this time. They’ve given themselves a chance in this Six Nations – it would be unforgivable to drop that so soon, in a home game that looks this winnable.

France’s visit in Dublin should be a cracker

Elsewhere? I don’t really see a looming crisis with England. They were decent for an hour against Scotland. Their fitness was a little suspect in the last 15.

There are areas they need to improve, and they should really make their mind up with Marcus Smith and Farrell. But they’ll beat Italy, if not by the usual hatful.

In Dublin, Ireland are eyeing up France with relish, and so they should be. The French were wobbling long before they barely escaped in Rome.

But still, France have now won their last three games against Ireland and 14 in a row against everyone else. They’ve beaten the entire string of tier one nations in that time. It’ll be a cracker.