It’s the hope that always gets you. The feeling that something special is being conjured up in front of your eyes only for it to be snatched away brutally.
There’s never any disgrace in losing to France in Paris, even in such a madcap fashion as the Jekyll-and-Hyde display served up by Gregor Townsend’s team on Sunday. They must have known they would face a ferocious onslaught from their opponents, and yet were still striving to create some momentum even as they swiftly went 19-0 in arrears.
Obviously, Grant Gilchrist didn’t help the cause by being sent off so early, but thankfully, Mohamed Haouas has emerged from Bampot Central – if you think he’s a naughty boy on the pitch, check out the reasons why he’s appearing in court in May – and his dismissal levelled matters up. But, despite trailing by 15 points at the interval, the visitors were sparkling in the second period with Finn Russell, Huw Jones and Sione Tuipulotu offering a masterclass in how to pierce the most obdurate of defences.
At 25-21 with the clock ticking down, I honestly wondered if they could muster one final salvo and apply the coup de grace. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, with Les Bleus sealing the deal with a last-minute touchdown for a 32-21 victory, dashing any aspirations the Scots might have harboured of pursuing their first Grand Slam since 1990.
But, while there were question marks over their sluggish start, which left them with a mountain the size of Everest to scale, allied to a series of baffling refereeing decisions, the overall quality of the performance provided plenty of reasons to be quietly confident about their next match against Ireland at Murrayfield on March 12.
Irish eyes are rightly smiling
However, let’s acknowledge a few things at this point. On the evidence of their displays to date, the Irish fully merit their place at the sumit of the IRB rankings. They demolished Wales, squeezed the life out of France and, even without some of their key personnel, including the talismanic Johnny Sexton, merited their success against an often inspired Italian line-up in Rome. Three matches, three bonus points, and now they are chasing another Grand Slam with a strength in depth they’ve never had before.
It’s a far cry from the 1990s when Scotland dominated proceedings in this fixture. I still recall talking to Craig Chalmers about his career and him pointing out that he played against Ireland on nine occasions, including eight in the Five Nations Championship and won them all. What a contrast with the present situation where his compatriots have managed just one solitary triumph in the last dozen meetings between the pair and that was back in 2017 when they defeated their Celtic cousins 27-22 in Edinburgh.
Yet, while Sexton will be continuing his swansong and pulling the strings as usual at No 10, there’s no question of Russell being in any way intimidated by his opposite number. Quite the contrary. As he and his colleagues have demonstrated in the Six Nations, there’s a mesmerising pace and adventurous style about this Scotland ensemble which we’ve never witnessed before. And when it clicks, it can be truly magical to behold.
A fast start will be important
In front of their own crowd, they have to burst out of the blocks and get the crowd buzzing. With Jones, Russell and their fellow backs in terrific form, they have the capacity to bother and bewilder any rivals and, regardless of the marvels which Ireland have achieved in the last three years, the Scots have to strive to knock them out of their rhythm, attack at pace and with varied angles, and be ruthless in their finishing.
They have the requisite individuals to execute that philosophy of controlled chaos, but they also possess a new inner steel which was one of the positives from Paris. In bygone seasons, lesser sides might have capitulated or thought about damage limitation after trailing so badly, but the Scots refused to change their tactics and persevered in playing often high-risk, but thrilling rugby as they nagged away at the French resistance.
And although Ireland are seeking a Slam, Townsend’s troops still have a prize to pursue of their own. They haven’t won the Triple Crown since 1990, but will have that incentive in the build-up to the contest, which promises to be packed with fizz and a Wow factor.
When they last bested the Irish, it was a memorable afternoon for the Scotland captain, Stuart Hogg, who scored a brace of tries, as the prelude to his Borders confrere Greig Laidlaw landing two penalties in the 72nd and 80th minutes to transform a 22-21 deficit to a nerve-shredding success. And it would be good if Hogg could roll back the years with a similar showing on Sunday week.
He hasn’t been at the height of his powers in recent times and the headlines invariably seem to revolve around Finn this and Finn that, but Hogg is a massive talent in is own right and should maybe watch a video of that 2017 tussle to remind him as much.
I’m keeping the faith that the Scots can exorcise their Parisian blues with another performance to stir the blood. If they do so, it will be Triples all round!