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

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