Basic errors, an inflexible game plan and little help from the referee combined to send Scotland to a 35-25 defeat in Ireland, but they can kick on and build a brighter future
By Rory Baldwin
Tales of the unexpected
Where was all the running rugby? Both sides’ previous matches suggested this would be a swashbuckling free-for-all, instead it was a physical and at times fractious battle for control at the breakdown peppered with a fair bit of kicking. One moment of individual magic from Stuart Hogg – one of the tries of the tournament – will probably be the only thing this match is remembered for either side of the Irish sea.
Sadly, Scotland weren’t helped by reverting to error-strewn play under pressure. In the first week England targeted Tommy Seymour and Hogg under high balls, they responded well against Wales and have done ever since. A novice, never mind a shrewd tactician like Joe Schmidt, would switch the point of attack, and so Duncan Weir and Tim Visser were put under pressure by Ireland, which they dealt with badly, keeping the ball firmly in the hands of Ireland for most of the first half.
All the usual suspects appeared – forced passes, poor restarts, missed kicks to touch; but we also saw the usually reliable Hogg and Seymour bungle an attempt to field a kick, gifting a try to Keith Earls in the process.
We do need to talk about the referee
I don’t like to grumble about referees, but Pascal Gauzere was quite often hopeless. The John Barclay yellow card was a poor decision as he was the tackler and not yet in a ruck, although even if he had been let off, probably whichever penalty came next – and Barclay gave away a few – would have been a card. When Greig Laidlaw was getting a team warning as early as nine minutes into the match, discipline was always going to be a problem.
One big call Gauzere got right was Alex Dunbar‘s clueless suplex wrestling move on Johnny Sexton, even if what looked like a bit of play acting from Sexton immediately following was equally unnecessary.
Although inexcusable, the fractious last 20 minutes or so represented the boiling over of Scottish frustrations at Irish infringing. Whether it was holding players down – John Hardie and WP Nel couldn’t defend CJ Stander‘s quarterback sneak because they were pinned under Sexton, who had belly-flopped on top of them – clearing defenders out at the edge of rucks or lying over the ball to protect it, by the time Gauzere did reach into his pocket to send an Irishman to the bin, it was long overdue. Our old pal Craig Joubert had even popped up to recommend just a penalty be awarded for Hogg being tackled off the ball while homing in on both the line and Barclay’s grubber.
Ireland won ugly, but they still won
Scotland fans can only gripe so much though. At the end of the day the reason Ireland were able to do what they liked was that they were in near complete control of the territory, possession and scoreboard for swathes of the match.
Scotland were once again too slow to adapt to a tactical approach that was nullifying their effectiveness. In turn a tactical plan designed to pin Ireland back, when executed poorly, was merely handing them possession that Ireland were only too happy to use to their advantage.
The Scots needed to alter their approach tactically and at the breakdown far quicker than half-time, let alone when Pete Horne took the field around the hour mark. Even he was far from his best. They needed leadership to deal with the persistent Irish breakdown offences that they were themselves getting picked up for, and they needed to get on the right side of the referee. If they had that, they would have been less susceptible to the niggle late in the game.
The Irish defence was physical, and more than up to a Scottish attack holding too deep with Weir in charge. Their kicking was a lot more considered, accurate and well-chased. Both sides took something from their chances in the opponent’s 22 with seven tries in total, but Ireland had a much better plan to make sure they earned more of those chances.
We really missed Jonny Gray
His bulk was absent in the scrum where there was even a take against the head, and his missing influence in the defensive line was noticeable, especially early on when it was rippling shakily like a Mexican wave.
His brother Richie at least stepped up again with a try, more big carries and tackles, and even looks like he might be considering settling his immense bulk into some sort of smiling-faced enforcer role.
Being too nice is something Scotland teams have been accused of in the past and it looks like maybe Vern Cotter‘s team are trying to unearth something a bit more streetwise. They are just not very good at it yet.
The way forward is still pretty clear
As another Six Nations comes to a close, Scotland finished in fourth place, with wins over the teams they finished above. Of the losses only Saturday’s result was by more than a single score.
So although third place would have been far more welcome, panic stations are not required. It was a vast improvement on last year, albeit with many of the same failings as documented here previously.
For their summer tour Scotland head to Japan and it might be prudent to try and grow depth in some of the areas they are lacking. It is tempting to leave Ford, Barclay and Sean Lamont at home – perhaps even Laidlaw and Hardie, who has played a lot of rugby since 2014 – and get some new talent bedded in.
Scotland are thin in the front-row, although it was pleasing to see Hogg’s former schoolmate Rory Sutherland get a first cap on Saturday. Zander Fagerson, Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown all need more game time and Scotland are also missing some heft in the back row and backup at wing and lock, unless Grant Gilchrist can stay fit.
Although blessed with stocky opensides, from Hardie and Chris Fusaro down to Hamish Watson and the promising Matt Smith in the Under 20s, Scotland need to unearth some more offloading ball carriers in the Josh Strauss mode to compete with the Vunipolas, Faletaus and Standers of this world. Adam Ashe may well have a bigger role to play in the summer and beyond.
With promise finally sputtering into occasional bloom, it will be interesting to see what Vern Cotter does next.