The next step remains unreached. Scotland seem to get vertigo when they’re apparently set to move to the next level.
The 20-17 loss on Saturday to a – let’s face it – pretty limited Welsh team was close to the most crushing disappointment of the Gregor Townsend era.
That still stands as the simply-didn’t-show-up World Cup opener in 2019 against Ireland, but at least that was to a half-decent team.
Wales, fresh off a rout in Dublin and shorn of 600-caps worth of experience, were there for the taking. Indeed Scotland twice led by five points in the first half. It seemed another score of any sort might break the Welsh both times.
Doggedness doesn’t work this time
Time to regroup and go again.
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) February 13, 2022
The Scots hadn’t really played to their potential but here’s the news for those not watching carefully – they haven’t since the Paris game nearly a year ago. Doggedness carried them to wins over Australia, Japan and England.
The Scots have defended well in those wins, done the basics reasonably well and taken their chances. But they’ve not played exceptionally well.
The defence was reasonable enough on Saturday. Wales never really looked like scoring but from penalty possession and the setpiece that followed. However the basics – ball retention, the breakdown, clean setpiece – were poor and the Scots never maximised their periods of limited control.
Control is what Gregor Townsend believes was missing. “I feel it was more about ball control than actual breakdown issues,” he said, answering a question about how much they had missed Jamie Ritchie. “There were a couple of times when we lost the ball in collisions, which stopped the flow of our attack.”
No control at the breakdown
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 12, 2022
Scotland’s attack didn’t really function at all well. The only try came from a period of bashing the Welsh line after a wide pass from Ali Price on a penalty advantage opened up space for Duhan van der Merwe – the only time he got free all afternoon.
The Scots toiled through 15 phases before Finn Russell’s speculative wide pass found Darcy Graham, who fought his way past Louis Rees-Zammit to score in the corner. After gifting Wales a 6-0 start, the Scots led 11-6 by the end of the first quarter and had scoreboard control.
But there was no control on the deck. Ritchie, as the breakdown enforcer in attack and defence, was sorely missed and this game underlines how important he has become to Scotland. But it definitely should not have been the crucial absence that it was.
“We’ll have a good look at the interpretation of the breakdown,” said Townsend. “At times the teams were being awarded jackals. At other times the ball was getting slowed down and teams were getting penalised.
“We’ll look at the last 20 minutes to see if there should have been more penalties there.”
Indiscipline gave the Welsh a platform
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 12, 2022
The clear inference is that the Scots thought there should have been. But that doesn’t excuse the pedestrian way they attacked in the last ten minutes, barely making a metre of ground as the clock wound down.
And the head coach might do well to look at his own side’s penalty count, which continues to be a source of easy possession for the opposition.
Against England the game almost got away from Scotland prior to the last quarter as they surrendered territory and ultimately points with poor discipline.
13 penalties is not the worst they’ve been. But it’s always been a mark of Townsend sides that they concede a lot. For Wales, with their solid maul game, it was an entry point into the game they weren’t going to get from moving the ball beyond Dan Biggar.
Wales fought impressively, and their disruption of Scotland’s ball was effective. But you still felt just a vigorous shove would send them over the precipice.
Despite all their deficiencies Scotland were still in the game throughout, and ultimately just three points short. But there was no pep to their attack for most of the second half. One bursting run from Sione Tuilupatu and a couple of steppers from Graham were about it.
Russell’s card wasn’t insurmountable
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 12, 2022
And there were of course the ten minutes when Finn Russell was absent.
For all his perceived “maverick” reputation, Russell has never cost Scotland a game – until, possibly this one. His intentional knock-on and yellow card – gloriously ironic after the Calcutta Cup – was fairly blatant and correctly called.
But Scotland were only in that somewhat desperate situation because too many players unforgivably stood around looking when Biggar’s long penalty came back off the post and the ball was snared easily by Alex Cuthbert.
Russell’s intervention probably saved a try. In the end, after two more offences, Biggar dropped the goal that was ultimately the gamewinner.
But you thought at the time that Scotland had, on balance, got out of a potentially far more sticky situation. They were just three points down and there was plenty of time left to correct that.
A team ready to make that next step would have corrected it. They found a way to win in Paris when Russell was red-carded, after all. Finn didn’t have the greatest of games but he merely reflected the way the team played – kind of carelessly.
The reputation Scotland were building after the Calcutta Cup win was of a resilient, never-say-die team. One that can soak up pressure and then turn it back on you.
But the reputation we’re left with is the same one they’ve had throughout Townsend’s tenure. Small gains and some great results every so often. But opportunities missed and let downs just when they seem on the verge of a real breakthrough.
Yes, it’s the best team in terms of results we’ve had in the pro era. But that’s been a really easy bar to jump.
Are they really capable of kicking on further? After comparing the quality of fare in Cardiff to that in Paris on Saturday, you have to seriously doubt it.