Alex Massie

Until 3pm Sunday, Hope Lives!

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This is optimism's optimum moment. Twelve hours from now everything will change. That's when, alas, France will most probably begin to take control of this afternoon's encounter with Scotland at Murrayfield. And yet, stubbornly and despite logic that dictates Chris Cusiter's boys have just a one in four chance of prevailing, hope still flowers.

That's partly because no-one looked very good today. Beat France and all sorts of things suddenly seem possible. Unlikely? For sure, but this is the time for dreaming. Italy were an affront to rugby and a sad one too; Ireland were pretty poor on Saturday and I still think that David Wallace's best days are behind him (despite his rather strange Man of the Match award yesterday) and that Johnny Sexton is now a better fly-half than Ronan O'Gara.

Sadly, Wales can only get better. But will they? Shane Williams is done and without Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins they're weak up-front. Does Martin Williams, wonderful player though he has been, still have the ability to play for 80 minutes in test match rugby? Perhaps, but Andy Powell and Ryan Jones are limited, over-rated players excellent at biffing and boshing but not much else. They were outplayed by the England back-row for whom Nick Easter was outstanding. Easter is both slow and under-rated. To call him a poor man's Dean Richards is no insult. England will win in Rome and then, with confidence boosted, have an excellent chance of defeating Ireland at Twickenham. Confidence builds momentum and vice-versa. 

It's tempting fate, obviously, but this French side looks only average in the tight exchanges. Tough guys, but not fearsome ones. The back division is a different matter: skilful and terrifying. Look at the players not selected: Mermoz, Clerc, Heymans, Malzieu, Floch...

As for Scotland, well, having an international class 10 would make all the difference. This is a team with fewer journeymen than some Tartan sqauds but, alas, also lighter on world-class talents. I wish the Edinburgh open-side Ross Rennie were fit to play so that John Barclay could move over to the blind-side. In the opinion of at least one distinguished British Lion, Rennie is the best rugby-player in Scotland. His presence would permit Scotland to attack the breakdown more effecitvely than is likely to be the case in his absence.

And most of the best Scottish sides since I first went to Murrayfield in 1981 have depended heavily on the back-row. Neither Fin Calder nor John Jeffrey were classic blind-sides, nor was the magnificent David Leslie* and the last time we won the championship, in 1999, we played a brace of open-sides in Martin Leslie and Budge Pountney.

I think we may be moving to an era in rugby in which pace and flexibility and skill and ball-playing begin to matter more than physicality and raw power. These latter attributes are still important of course, but they're not enough. Look at James Hook for Wales yesterday or, for that matter, at how Brian O'Driscoll seems to have both lost some weight and improved his form. It's always a question of balance, of course, but pure skill still has a place. Indeed, in an era of superlative defensive organisation, there's a greater premium on skill and magic than ever before.

Which is another way of wishing that we had John Rutherford playing for us at Murrayfield this afternoon. Or Gregor Townsend.

*A certainty for my own Best-Scotland-Side-Made-up-of-Players-I've-Seen** and a disgrace that he wasn't a Lion in 1983. All this time later and this still rankles.

**Oh, you want the full team? OK! Players are picked on the basis of their best years even if those years may have been pre-1981: Irvine, Tait, Townsend, Renwick, Baird, Rutherford, Armstrong, Sole (Capt), Deans, I Milne, Gray, Tomes, D Leslie, Jeffrey, D White  Subs: Laidlaw, G Hastings, T Smith, F Calder, K Milne, Weir, S Hastings.

You might say that there's a bit of jiggery-pokery involved here and you'd have a point. But Gregor is too rare a talent to leave out and I think he'd have been devastating at 13. Equally, Alan Tait was able to play test rugby for the Lions on the wing. Meanwhile, Chris Gray was one of the most under-rated locks we've ever had. He deserves greater recognition. If David Sole weren't captaining this side, mind you, I'm not sure he'd really be able to keep Tom Smith out of it. Perhaps it's only sentiment and the old-school tie that permits this in the first place and if you were to make that case you might have a point.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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