Scots hardier beast as work in progress ticks boxes despite defeat in Dublin
Indiscipline costly as Ireland secure four-try-to-three victory
THIS final match of their Six Nations campaign was always likely to be a game too far for the Scotland squad, and so it proved. They had thrown everything into their previous two games, the victories over Italy and France; they had only six days to recover from the latter match and injury had deprived them of two of their most important players, Jonny Gray and Finn Russell.
Factor in the simple truth that Ireland are a better team than the Italians and French, and it was clear that Scotland would have to be at their best to have a realistic chance of winning in Dublin. They were not at their best. Not, at least, in all aspects of their game.
The cutting edge in attack was still there, and it helped them end the Championship with more than 100 points and get their try count into double figures for the first time since Five became Six at the turn of the century. But the old failings were there too – casual yet costly errors in defence, lapses in concentration and outbreaks of indiscipline, including the two that produced yellow cards for John Barclay and Alex Dunbar.
Some of the penalties conceded were understandable responses to heavy Irish pressure and had they not been given away, more points for the home team might well have ensued. Some might also have been caused more by the referee’s overzealousness than by genuine Scottish misdemeanours. Even so, a third category, that of penalties that could and should have been avoided, was larger than the other two put together.
However, it is worth putting the indiscipline and the final score into context. This was the biggest margin of defeat from the five games, outdoing the six-point loss to England and the fourpoint loss to Wales, and it was also by some way the match in which most points were scored by the opposition.
But for all that there was a laissezfaire, end-of-term attitude in evidence at times from both sides, this was none the less a more structured and coherent showing from Scotland than they had mustered in the final game of the previous two seasons. In 2015, they went down 40-10 to Ireland at Murrayfield. The year before it was 51-3 in Wales. Granted, we should not go overboard in praising a performance simply because it was better than those two shoddy showings, but its relative merit is at least a sign that this Scotland squad is becoming a hardier beast.
There is still an immaturity at times, as there is in all teams who have not developed the habit of winning big matches. But, for all the flaws that were on display in the Aviva Stadium, the game still had enough positive aspects in it to warrant the conclusion that Scotland are steadily getting better. The term ‘work in progress’ is often used apologetically, to excuse the shortcomings of a team, but in this case it can be applied in a straightforward sense. The hard work is evident and the progress is there too.
One indication of that progress is the fact that Scotland were still in the contest until the closing minutes. For all that Ireland were the better side for the bulk of the match, the visitors had enough quality and invention to keep fighting back. There was a hint of desperation about their attempts to attack from deep late in the game, but the fact remained that at that stage they were only one score away from throwing the outcome back into serious doubt.
They did not help themselves, of course, by beginning the game in such jittery fashion. They were 6-0 then 9-3 down after giving away a series of penalties, but then came the game’s real moment of magic – the run from deep by Stuart Hogg that saw the full back slice through the defence to score the first try of the game. Greig Laidlaw’s conversion put Scotland ahead but, with Barclay in the bin, Ireland scored two tries – first when CJ Stander forced his way over and then when Keith Earls profited from a horrendous mix-up between Hogg and Tommy Seymour. Another Laidlaw penalty made it 21-13 at the break, not a bad score at all for a team that had been under the cosh for half an hour or more of the first 40 minutes.
Crucially, Ireland got the first try of the second half, with scrum half Conor Murray applying the coup de grace after a lineout drive. Scotland again hit back, this time with Richie Gray getting the try, but then Dunbar was yellow-carded for a tip-tackle off the ball on Jonny Sexton. The Irish stand-off reacted histrionically to an incident which he had actually begun, but he quickly got over the injury he claimed to have suffered – and Ireland swiftly benefited from having an extra man to send giant lock Devin Toner over for their fourth try.
Sexton himself was binned towards the end of an increasingly fractious match and Dunbar completed the scoring with a consolation try just after he had come back on to the pitch. By that time, loosehead prop Rory Sutherland had come on for his first cap, while Stuart McInally also had a useful half-hour as replacement hooker.
Head coach Vern Cotter is steadily mustering a squad of growing experience and competitiveness. Saturday’s defeat showed how far they have got to go, but it also provided grounds for looking forward optimistically to next year’s Six Nations Championship – which begins, incidentally, with a home game against Ireland.
CONSOLATION: Alex Dunbar completes Scotland’s scoring with a try after coming back on to the pitch following his yellow card
MY BALL: Scotland’s Tommy Seymour beats Keith Earls for possession
CRUNCH: Richie Gray halts the progress of Johnny Sexton