TEST rugby and the RBS Six Nations Championship is not what one would term a stage for development, but it is difficult to escape the fact that is exactly where we are at in the small world of Scottish rugby.
When 20 years ago Scotland selectors had players from ten or 12 clubs to choose from, a handful of scrum-halves and stand-offs at least vying for attention of the coaches if not all of the quality to play for Scotland, now there are invariably only two, and with Edinburgh starting Piers Francis the stand-off call this season has been between Glasgow’s first-choice and their bench man.
So, while pros in England and France have 12 top clubs to hone their talents, and Wales and Ireland four teams and so 160 places at ‘finishing school’, the Test arena becomes the school for Scottish pros to really learn their craft under pressure, and few are learning it better than the Edinburgh centre Matt Scott.
The 22-year-old was viewed as a promising talent from his early teens, coming through the ranks at Currie as a stand-off, but aspects of his kicking game didn’t quite fit for coaches to be convinced of his future in the No. 10 jersey.
A move to inside centre came and he has spent the past two years getting to grips with the different demands there, firstly with Currie, alternating between ten and 12, then with Edinburgh and, since a rapid promotion to Scotland’s bench when team-mate Nick de Luca went down injured minutes before facing Ireland in Dublin last season, at international level.
He finished his first full Six Nations on Saturday as one of only three players to have played every minute of every game, Sean Lamont and Tim Visser the others, and that was not the original plan. Scott Johnson had lined up Glasgow’s versatile back Peter Horne, another stand-off-turned-centre, for a surprise debut at Twickenham but he suffered a fracture in his thumb the week before the opening match against England and Scott was handed the No. 12 jersey.
As a result Scott’s confidence and understanding of the game grew immeasurably through the championship, his first Test try against Italy a cracking effort and his break in Paris on Saturday night setting up Tim Visser for the final, albeit consolation try. His defence has also improved with world-class performers such as Brad Barritt, Jamie Roberts, Brian O’Driscoll and Mathieu Bastareaud all being felled by Scott at one time or another.
“If fortunes had gone the other way I could have had very little game-time, but as it turns out I’ve played every minute of every game, which is a massive honour,” he said, looking back.
“It’s been a massive learning experience. I’m by no means the finished article as a player. I have a long way to go, but I have the attitude that I need to keep improving because I want to be up there as one of the best centres in the tournament one day.
“I’ve done some good things in the tournament and I’ve made some mistakes, but from where I was even a couple of months ago I feel a lot more rounded as a player, have learned a lot more and I’ve been around good players and coaches, getting tested week in week out, which has been good for my game.
“Obviously I would have liked more wins, but as a first proper Six Nations it’s been a great learning experience.”
That is key for Scott Johnson and the development of this Scotland squad. Due to the least demanding and competitive structure of teenage development of the top eight nations, largely the result of Scotland’s small population, most Scottish players come into the pro and Test arena some way behind their peers in different aspects of the game. A glance at Scotland’s record of zero wins against France at under-20 and under-21 level, which continued in Brive yesterday, and poor statistics against all of the home unions at age-grade levels, confirms that.
But, with the right exposure and development they can catch up, and Scott is one who has grabbed his chance and taken significant strides in the past two months.
“It’s funny because you don’t think you’ve changed that much as a player over the course of six months or a year, but when I look back now to where I was getting my first cap last year I’m a completely different player. I’m more confident, I’ve learned a hell of a lot more, especially defensively, and the more Test experience we get before the World Cup particularly the stronger we’re going to be.
“Personally, the more games you play at this level the better. A year ago, coming out of club rugby, I was a bit star-struck and was going into a game just trying not to make a mistake, as opposed to trying to make a difference. But now I am really seeking the ball and trying to make a difference, because I’m confident I can make a break or put in a big tackle, whatever is needed.
“That’s also been a massive psychological change, which again only comes with playing Test matches. I look at these players in the French team, Welsh, Irish, Italian and English teams differently now; I feel I can measure up to them and cause them problems. I didn’t feel that a year ago.
“So I feel very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity in this championship to get five 80 minutes in a row, and it’s up to me now to use it now and really push on.
“We all said in the changing room in the Stade de France that we’re sick of being valiant losers and we can’t take a step back now with Scotland. This has been a positive step forward from the autumn, we’ve finished third and so it is progress from last year, but it’s only a start. We now have to use it in the right way to kick-start real improvement.”
With ten of Saturday’s squad having similarly made their Test debuts inside the past year or so, and more like Horne, Tom Heathcote, Pat MacArthur and Rob Harley expected to feature on the summer tour, developing talent will be a common theme for Scotland.