It’s not the hope that kills you, but it doesn’t half make the frustration more acute. A year on from the hope sprung by victory in Paris, Scotland are back in their usual rut.
Maybe this correspondent has seen too many false dawns, and too many dispiriting Dublin visits. Not even maybe, actually.
But the Six Nations finale at the Aviva Stadium just felt exactly the same as countless trips since Ireland stopped being the standing joke of the championship, around 2000 or so. The joke’s been on us ever since.
Ireland’s Plan A too good for Scotland
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 19, 2022
The Irish had been playing a wider, more open game of late – even Gregor Townsend spoke in admiring tones of it before Saturday’s game. But it was the old Plan A that was much too good for Scotland.
Ireland’s 26-5 was their biggest win over Scotland since the nadir of Townsend’s reign, the opening game of the 2019 World Cup. Like then, they didn’t even have to be creative to get a stranglehold on the game. They just waited for the inevitable errors and penalties.
Scotland’s discipline has been downright shocking in this championship – it’s the only thing they’ve led in throughout. With 15 penalties conceded this was the worst yet, even though we’ve been assured it was being dealt with as far back as Cardiff.
And this was against the team in the Six Nations you can least afford to be indisciplined against. Ireland’s DNA is the kick to the corner and drive – 70 to 80% of their tries come that way. 100% came that way on Saturday.
Townsend said afterwards that Scotland’s maul defence was sound, and it actually was, repelling the Irish more often than in previous games. Only if you give Ireland the opportunity to maul 10 to 12 times in your 22, they’re so well-drilled they’re going to score off at least a third of them.
Anyway, had Ireland not been chasing four tries from the off, they would have gone to the posts more often, even once. The margin of victory would surely have been greater.
Scotland had several line breaks in the first twenty minutes, but didn’t turn them into a single point. Fumbles, lost support runners, and penalties – always penalties – stymied them. Ireland’s scramble defence, surprise, surprise, was much better than Italy’s.
What was the point?
— Steve Scott (@C_SScott) March 18, 2022
But that lack of cohesion made one wonder what the point was in fielding Blair Kinghorn at 10. He started the game lying so deep he was always going to struggle to make an impact. There were a few loose passes, and sometimes he looked like the relative novice he is.
It’s doesn’t mean the Blair Switch Project is a failure, this was just the wrong time to do it. Finishing off a club season and the summer tour were far better ideas. Scotland immediately looked more threatening when Finn Russell came on, even at centre.
The team pulled ranks on discussing the off-field discipline issues. Stuart Hogg spoke of his apology to the squad but got increasingly irritated when probed further.
It was noticeable that the dropped Russell was at the captain’s side at the anthems, rather than at the end of the line with the other replacements.
Townsend’s reference to “families coming together to learn” from mistakes sounded unconvincing, not least because this is not the first time.
The body language of the team on the pitch and afterwards was uncomfortable. It’s not a leap to imagine they’re not nearly #AsOne as the hashtag claims.
Time now running out ahead of the World Cup
At the end of this international season, Scotland have been beaten soundly three times – once by Grand Slam champions France, and no enormous disgrace there, but also by South Africa and now Ireland.
Those last two are the teams the Scots will face in crucial World Cup pool matches in 18 months’ time. Even after the perceived progress of 2020 and 2021, there is still no real conviction that Scotland can find a way to beat them.
It’s probably too late to change course now. There is no realistic alternative at head coach, and Townsend will see out 2023 at least.
Hogg cannot be removed as captain without, one imagines, turning the obvious hairline fractures in squad morale into chasms.
The hope we felt a year ago has evaporated. Scotland are better than they were in 2019, but it’s all relative – look at Ireland and France.
They have driven on while Scotland have been in a lay-by admiring themselves in the rear view mirror. There’s a lot of catching up to do, and not much time to do it.