Officially, they don’t count the whitewashes in the long history of the International Championship as the RBS 6 Nations was once called when there were just four teams competing.
It’s the only way Scotland can escape the ignominy of their 11th “official” whitewash, confirmed in dispiriting fashion against repeating champions Ireland at BT Murrayfield on Saturday, because there’s a very good case for saying there’s only four teams in the championship right now, in a competitive sense anyway.
Some Scots, including one would imagine privately within the team, don’t consider themselves of the same cannon-fodder vintage as Italy. Well, no matter how close they got to France and Wales on the opening two weeks, the Italian debacle three weeks ago proved that to be utterly deluded, and it was proved wholesale in the final two weeks.
One of the faint solaces that head coach Vern Cotter and the Scotland squad attempted to placate fans through the media was that despite defeat “we weren’t getting dominated”. That box was indelibly ticked on Saturday.
It wasn’t that Scotland didn’t have their brief purple patch again, it’s just that it was briefer than ever, 10 minutes before half-time when they were already 17-3 down.
Scotland even scored a decent try through Finn Russell to get to 17-10. Naturally, they fumbled the kick-off and were penalised at the resultant scrum, in another of these maddening, basic lapses in concentration.
In the second-half, Ireland played more or less as they pleased, even leaving nine points from missed kicks on the paddock which were almost crucial in their bid to retain the title. However, Scotland’s midfield defence was still vulnerable in the absence of Alex Dunbar and easily pierced for two more tries. 40-10 was the absolute worst Ireland could have done.
Scotland’s sole moment of resistance in the second half was the late charge that saw Stuart Hogg lose the ball in the act of scoring with moments left. It was a suitably symbolic end to Scotland’s miserable season.
Long before that, Scotland looked a demoralised, spent team in the brilliant sunshine. There were some sparks of defiance from some of the younger players, Hogg, Mark Bennett, Adam Ashe and Jonny Gray. But only Russell really advanced his reputation on this day, mostly with ball in hand.
It was the veterans, worn down with losing, that looked most affected. Jim Hamilton trudged off early, Ross Ford as well after missing one open-field tackle on Sean O’Brien well within his usual range. Euan Murray barely lasted 12 minutes and Geoff Cross had an unhappy day.
Most of all, skipper Greig Laidlaw came off with fully 25 minutes left, a notably early hook for a captain, scrum-half and key placekicker. It was far from an unreasonable decision as well.
Laidlaw wouldn’t be the first Scotland captain worn down by this era of losing. But after such a bright start to the season against Argentina, he’s regressed to old habits that previously brought him justified criticism.
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne is bright and young and surely the future. But is he Scotland’s World Cup scrum-half? It was interesting to hear Cotter last week include Chris Cusiter among the names of players he could call on for the next few months.
Having appointed Laidlaw as captain after Grant Gilchrist’s injury, Cotter probably felt bound to stick with him. One suspects and hopes he’ll feel better able to make a change now.
But that’s just one problem. Scotland’s best XV are not that bad, probably competitive enough to beat Samoa in the crunch RWC game in Newcastle. But the chances of getting them all fit and able for that game on October 10 are extremely slim given the demands of modern rugby, and the reserves cupboard is bare.
We’re appallingly short of tight-head props, two injuries to frontline locks despite the emerging excellence of Johnnie Gray left Scotland badly exposed. Dunbar’s absence made the defence an embarrassment in the last two games.
Yet the chief executive and even David Denton on Saturday, who must have taken a knock to the head unnoticed, still target winning the Webb Ellis Trophy? It’s absurd, and at least Cotter dismissed it with typical understatement.
“It think we’ve got to address a fair few things in our game before we make ourselves a true threat,” he said in the aftermath. “Those things will be addressed, and earnestly.”
Nobody doubts Cotter’s earnestness, but one questions whether he can have the desired effect. Ireland coach Joe Schmidt gets lauded everywhere right now with justification, but he inherited a hardened, professional outfit of veteran players.
He has moulded them into a potential World Cup force the way Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney couldn’t, but he had far more foundation than his friend and former colleague Cotter has.
The Kiwi’s considerable reputation stands to be irrevocably damaged by his association with Scotland if he can’t turn them round. Rumours are already circulating of an opt-out. The next five months are crucial to where Scotland are going.
But be prepared to be heading back to the drawing board again. It’s where Scottish international rugby in the modern era seems most suited.