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Getting back to basics allows Scots to make most of what they have

When my colleague Alasdair Reid asked what Jim Hamilton had done to justify his continued inclusion for Scotland at last week's team announcement, the response was instructive.

Jim Hamilton shows his natural aggression against Italy on Saturday. Picture  Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Jim Hamilton shows his natural aggression against Italy on Saturday. Picture Russell Cheyne/Reuters

"We looked at everyone, Jim not in isolation," Scott Johnson, the caretaker coach replied, before offering unsolicited praise for the still uncapped Grant Gilchrist. "We're trying to find the balance of when we change people in and out - so this week's important for the squad going forward," he continued.

In that context, then, Alasdair's follow-up interview with Hamilton after Saturday's win over Italy was also telling. The lock, who had, before Saturday, set an unwanted record in the professional era of nine successive defeats as a Scotland starter, explained how Dean Ryan, the interim forwards coach, had told him to revert to what he does best.

That essentially means behaving as aggressively as possible and, elaborating, Hamilton seemed to question what had been going on previously. "Over the past two years, especially with Andy [Robinson], I had been trying to improve my game," he said. "I'd been trying to see where I can influence the game; do more, play an offloading game, charge down conversions and all that kind of thing. I'd been trying to get myself into a game that just wasn't natural to me. I had to go back to basics: hitting rucks, disrupting mauls, scrummaging, lineout."

It was a year ago that a post-match interview given by Hamilton, and the management team's reaction to it, offered the first insight into problems in the camp. He spoke then, on tape, of "chopping and changing" of the team having "unsettled" players during Scotland's World Cup failure, though he subsequently claimed that he had been misrepresented and kept his place in the team for the remainder of the campaign. Scotland were duly whitewashed, as they were again in the autumn.

With Robinson no longer picking the team, Hamilton seems to have had no problem with the publication of his latest comments and what they imply. Hamilton is no rapier, but a blunt instrument in the right hands – and Ryan's most certainly fit that bill – can be useful and dangerous.

Whether it will be as effective against an Irish pack that is as physically combative as the Italians but more skilful collectively remains to be seen.

However, the no-nonsense analysis which was Ryan's hallmark as a commentator – a job he maintains he will return to as soon as this championship is over – seems to have fostered an understanding of where things had been going wrong.

Robinson may be a perfect example of someone who turns his own strength into a fault. Widely regarded as a great coach, he enjoyed considerable success with Bath and, to a more limited extent, with Edinburgh while working with players on a day-to-day basis at club level. At international level, when not in overall charge, he contributed hugely to England's greatest successes. His philosophy is, if I understood it as well as I thought, quite sound. He does not believe in programming players to play a certain way or to follow specific tactics but by equipping them with the widest possible range of options and then trusting them to apply their skills and knowledge appropriately.

In one sense, he was extremely unlucky because the range of skills available to Scotland was transformed only at the very end of his time in charge. Stuart Hogg and Matt Scott had both emerged by then, Tim Visser became qualified and Sean Maitland relocated from New Zealand.

However, he probably spent too much time trying to make players better in international camps, where there was not enough time available to do it with those players who were selected for what they could already do.

Johnson and Ryan seem to know they must unleash what weaponry they have by maximising any other strengths available, providing clear messages and avoiding confusion by getting players to do what they do best.

In that environment, players like Hogg, Maitland and Visser can make a mockery of the statistics that used to offer a near certain guide to who was in control of a game of rugby.

Italy dominated possession and forced Scotland to make almost three times as many tackles as they did in the course of Saturday's match, as has happened when the All Blacks have met Scotland in the past. New Zealand needed far less of the ball to turn possession into points, though.

A first RBS 6 Nations win in two years does not make Scotland the All Blacks, of course. Consider, for example, how many Scots would make the team if one of those celebration matches where a Scotland/Ireland select faced an England/Wales XV was arranged right now.

It is, too, sobering to note that 12 years have elapsed since Scotland last won consecutive championship matches. That came at the expense of a complacent Ireland in the "foot and mouth" Test.

Johnson and Ryan have, then, used what is available to them to effect a short-term fix, but whether they really have the tools available to get full-scale rebuilding under way will become clearer in 10 days' time.

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