By Alan Dymock
IT WOULD be easy – and indeed lazy – to suggest that the referee was solely to blame for Scotland’s loss to Wales.
Yes, Craig Joubert’s performance was one every referee in the world will wince at, and yes the penalty count was diabolical. However, referees should not have considerations of our entertainment at heart. They can colour their interpretation in a way that promotes play, of course, but that is at the discretion of the man in the middle and teams must adapt to this. Wales simply coped better.
There will, of course, be a number who do not share this belief. It is hard to conjure up ridiculous notions of a conspiracy against the thistle when Jim Hamilton, all 6ft 8in of him, tip-toes round the ruck and lays a hand on the Welsh player fondling the ball.
Okay, so the scrum was a disaster zone and the referee was guessing when it came to timing the “set”, but even then there were issues. Euan Murray dealt poorly with Paul James’ shoulder, and he rarely touched when the ref gave the command. He sometimes overcame this and forced the referee’s hand, such is his fleeting quality, but he and others drifted in and out.
The ever-learning student Ryan Grant got his first real lesson when it came secondary shoves, and with all three of Scotland’s front row being proud players who thrive on momentum, but they became overzealous. With this and Joubert’s loose interpretation, the scrum became the spectacle no one called for.
So it became even more pertinent for Scotland to tighten up and act smarter in open play. Nevertheless, when they should have been taking a step back and a step in, closer to the breakdown, they did not and their scramble defence, so positive in past games, struggled with Wales once they broke the line.
The first real break came from George North after he and five of his friends ran to a gaping blindside, faced by a few amply spaced defenders. Richie Gray could only flail as North stepped and gunned the accelerator.
Scotland had defended their line so well all tournament, and they tried so hard in this tie. It was just that too many offside runs added up. The game was painfully stop-start. The Scots never stopped chancing their arm.
Arguably, Wales did the same, but got away with it. Yet if the Scottish tactic was to hit runners, one-out, and hope they can blast the likes of Sam Warburton, Ryan Jones and Justin Tipuric out of the way they deserved the shock they well and truly asked for.
For all the indiscipline and the apparent fall out with the ref at the scrum, Scotland were in the game, though, and that is credit to Kelly Brown and Greig Laidlaw. The two leaders never gave up and the kicker ensured that Scotland were not humiliated in any way. Matt Scott played well, too, kicking intelligently, and tying things together. He was solid.
The most irritating issue, beyond officiating, concerns Scotland’s back three.
With Duncan Weir at fly-half, the tactic was obvious. For some of the game it worked, as well, with bombs and touch-finders being mixed in. There was just a lack of variety in the running.
The one-out runners were chewed up and spat out and for much of the game, with team-mates lining behind Adam Jones, hoping to pick through the remains of Scottish players still caught in the top tackler’s beard. Scots wingers had to watch from afar, wondering if they would get a go. Only from kicks did anyone get a nibble at Stuart Hogg.
Even then, Sean Maitland carried more than anyone else. The former Crusader has fitted in well and has looked every part an international rugby player. Which makes for a great shame. At the start of Scott Johnson’s reign the back three were given the freedom to roam. As pressure and expectations have grown, however, the tactics have become more negative and focus on the breakdown has meant that the moves tailored to suit the sprinters have faded or been abandoned.
Against France, having a go should be a priority.
This being said, Scotland should give Johnson the role full-time, should he hanker after it. After all, with more time to pull in staff to focus long-term on rucking and running he can cheer and chuckle this team to continued improvement.
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