It’s all over. Pack up your hopes and dreams for another year. Dust off that Trainspotting GIF, stick Simon and Garfunkel on and find a thick wall to bash your skull against. Scotland are terrible again, hope is a lie, optimism is for fools, the tournament is finished, rugby remains a threat to your physical health, and you will never, ever be happy because you are Scottish and that’s just not how it’s done, thank you very much.
Or… perhaps not.
Because Scotland can still win this tournament. And not in a mathematically-possible-but-come-on-now way as was the case in the Autumn. Really, actually win the Six Nations. Of course they’ll need to stop throwing away fourteen-point leads to do it.
But while Louis Rees-Zammit is likely to be a thorn in opponents sides for years to come, his teammates didn’t really do anything special on Saturday. Scotland all but laid down the red carpet to gift them Doddie Weir’s trophy. This was a match that should have been over by half time. A match Scotland threw away with penalties. A match that if someone on the Scotland team had remembered their own penalties could be directed towards the two large sticks in the middle of the try line, they would have won. This is very much a case of victory lost rather than gained. Scotland were fourteen points ahead. Wales had only scored three. That’s a battlement for any team to climb. Scotland lowered the drawbridge.
And as infuriating as it is, things could be worse. Had Wales simply beaten Scotland because they were the better side that would be one thing. But they weren’t. It was Scotland’s ill-discipline and poor decision making that cost them the game. It was their dogged determination to ignore the paralysis that struck their forwards at the whiff of white paint, something we were all willing to overlook against England but is starting to look eerily like a pattern now.
But these are things that can be changed in the space of two weeks. “Don’t shoulder people in the head,” is simple enough that even props should be able to understand it if repeated enough. If someone picks up some lippy from the Co-Op and writes “take the three,” on Stuart Hogg’s bathroom mirror it should eventually sink in.
Had Scotland played this way against England, they would have lost that game too. That they didn’t shows these faults are not intrinsic. So the Wales game can be chalked up to a bad day at the office and there’s a tournament decider against France in two weeks.
No but seriously, there is.
If France beat Scotland then truly all is done for and the final two weekends of the Championship are about saving face and little else. But if Scotland beat France…
“What about Wales?” asks a lyrically indignant voice from the back. Ah, Wales. Yes, technically they’re still on course for the Grand Slam but then technically Scotland is outside the Arctic Circle and it’s still been ever so slightly chilly of late. Narrowly beating fourteen uninspired Celts two weeks in a row is not the stuff legends are made of.
Of course, they could pull it off and leave those of us – particularly overly snarky Scots – that doubt them looking very foolish indeed. Rob Howley was correct when he said last year they had not become a bad team overnight. For all their ills of the past twelve months this is still Wales we’re talking about and pulling consecutive wins from mediocre performances is something only talented squads can do. But unless they somehow find a way to clone Rees-Zammit fourteen times in the next fortnight, few will truly expect them to beat France, even if the referee’s pocket again favours them. Even the most devoted of the Welsh faithful would surely concede they’ve been fortunate to face the collected recklessness of O’Mahony and Fagerson over the past fortnight. Will they even be favourites against England?
England should beat Wales, at home, in Cardiff or anywhere else, as they should win all matches and all competitions for They Are England and This Is The Way. Over the years it is only the unfairness of referees, touchline markers, TMOs, weather conditions, nematodes, the media, residency rules, and opposition that has ever despoiled this perfection. And the frustration of losing a game to Scotland and a turnover to Italy is about to crash into the Principality Stadium with all the subtlety of a Prime Ministerial photo op. There is a match that could genuinely go either way and the losers are done for.
As of course are Ireland, reeling from their own two losses. They’ll beat Italy but take small comfort from the act, still present staunch opposition for the three teams yet to face them, but their tournament is, remarkably, over after two games.
Yes, Scotland’s Grand Slam dream is done with, but Grand Slams are for the ostentatious.
It would be ungentlemanly to beat everyone. Really it’s just showing off. Were Scotland to win this tournament with four wins out of five, surely it would only be the Clive Woodwards of the world casting doubt on their validity as champions. And wouldn’t winding Clive Woodward up be fair recompense to most Scots for losing a match to Wales?
Hype is an unreliable midwife to Scottish Six Nations tournaments, almost always the precursor to disappointment and drowned sorrows for fans. Whether the players are guilty of buying in to it is difficult to say. Perhaps against Wales at the weekend. Surely not against France in Paris.
France are the favourites to win the tournament today as they were at the start but if they are to be stopped from getting a Grand Slam, unbelievably it’s to Scotland that the responsibility falls. Scotland will need to play an excellent game of rugby to beat the French. But we know they can. Everyone saw how easily they beat England. Everyone saw how easily they should have beaten Wales.
The team’s problems are mental; not physical. They can’t cope with being favourites. You see this every year when they play Italy. Italy are, with all the will and love in the world, not very good at this rugby business. At least not relatively speaking, not compared to the top flight of teams. Scotland should thrash them every time they meet. That’s what other teams do. They just relentlessly pound the Italians until they fall down and then run in a hurtful number of tries. And while Scottish Ws have piled up against the Azzurri, there are few humiliations to be found. Well, Italian ones anyway. They’ve shamed Scotland more than once and there are plenty of matches with scorelines far too close for comfort.
A Scotland team that can hold its own against anyone in the world on its day so often struggles against Italy. Italy who are currently ranked seventeenth in the world behind, pragmatically speaking, the only other teams in the world that play regular top flight rugby and a shameful number who don’t.
Scotland from the heady position of seventh on the list should barely register running over Italy. But the Italians are the pea to Scotland’s princess and a good night of sleep is never coming until it’s gone. Why?
Because Scotland are favourites. They’re expected to win, and they’re expected to win comfortably. For whatever reason this flummoxes them. There’s a reason Italy target the Scotland game every year. Consistently Scotland lack the mental toughness of their neighbours. They have no killer instinct, ruthlessness is for others, and the polite condescencion of other Championship contenders is an abstract concept. Where other coaches make acquiescent musings about respecting Italy’s toughness and fighting for the win, Gregor Townsend actually has to mean it. Scotland don’t need physio, they need therapy. Get some recliners and an Austrian with a pipe and they’ll be able to take on the world. Just don’t tell anyone. Talk them down. Make sure everyone knows they’re the underdogs.
Great Scottish victories do not come preceded by expectation. They come out of nowhere.
And no-one expects Scotland to beat France in Paris.
France are very good, but they’re not invincible. They can be beaten. For all the Gallic endeavour on display, Ireland kept them locked down for thirty minutes on Sunday and almost snatched the win. With minutes left on the clock France decided the best way to run it down was to repeatedly kick the ball to the opposition and see what happened. Scotland can beat them. That is a very real thing that can happen. And then?
After directing England to eat their cereal, shooting themselves in the foot against Wales and pulling it together against France, Scotland will have beaten the two ‘top’ sides in the competition and narrowly lost one game with two to go. All they have to do is beat an ageing, unimpressive Ireland for the first time in, erm, four years and five games, and Scotland will go into the final weekend of the Six Nations playing to win the whole damn show.