I used to do the occasional “5 Things We Learned” piece over on the Rugby World website, and after a while it always got a bit tricky trying to find something new to write about that wasn’t a variation on “fix the restarts” and “pay attention for goodness sake”, game after game, year after year. Things have been better recently, in the Six Nations at least, and there have been wins to talk about, and records seen off.
Improvement, however small or slow.
Still, even a game as wildly diverse in momentum and incident as the game last weekend in Cardiff – that, lest we forget, resulted in a Scotland away win on opening weekend – left us with “pay attention” as a key takeaway.
It also left a lot of us with an overall feeling of despondency at a second-half collapse that was all too familiar to Scotland fans who’ve been alive for any length of time. All the old bugbears were there: bad discipline, an unwillingness or inability to keep hold of the ball, error compounding error, a disintegrating rapport with the referee.
Tournament contenders would have nilled Wales and knocked off a bonus point try, surely? And we so badly want our team to be tournament contenders.
There are of course, a lot of positives that can be taken if we sidestep ambition, not least of which is a first win in Cardiff for 22 years.
We’ve seen Scotland lose that game before (see also: plucky), many times, and often against Wales.
When Scotland had 15 men on the park plus the ball in the first 42 minutes and last 10, there only really seemed like there would be one winner. Ben White and Finn Russell delivered precision in their approach and then when the time came to strike, they were as ruthless as Duhan van der Merwe’s shoulders are broad.
If somehow Scotland can keep that particular version front and centre, we might be in business. The inability to do so remains a worry.
The way the second half swung also showed just why Wales want the roof closed whenever possible, and why Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend was right to resist as long as he could until the weather intervened.
The 16th man for Wales wasn’t the referee, it was the crowd who kept the momentum rolling as they narrowed the gap on the scoreboard, then narrowed it again. And again.
As Scotland’s mental fragility reared its ugly head, the screaming masses pulled their team towards what looked like a comeback that would have been even greater than 2010, given their age and experience.
Unlike that day the injuries were not catastrophic, but Scotland will badly feel the loss of Richie Gray at lineout time and Luke Crosbie’s ferocity in the loose.
Finn Russell as captain was refreshing in his honesty, suggesting post-match that players had, for whatever reason, not stuck to the plan or instructions coming on from the sidelines.
While the more tinfoil-hatted amongst fans will point to this as Townsend losing the dressing room and his ideas being ignored (again?), it seems more likely the players were just mid-panic and did not focus enough to execute what was a perfectly sensible idea – when down to 14 men, keep as many bodies (and thus hands) out of the ruck as possible.
The captain also has some responsibility to bear for a few rash decisions that turned into keystone cops moments. Even the best ten in the tournament, kicking 100% of his goals was not immune from panic but that first half (really 42 minute) performance showcased Russell’s Scotland at their best and we should focus on that for the visit of a wounded French team.
As Italy showed England on Saturday (and Wales showed Scotland) there won’t be any easy games in this tournament.
For Scotland to be challenging for the Six Nations based on bonus points come the final day, it would likely mean that Ireland would need to lose twice. Which based on their demolition of France on Friday night, seems unlikely, and makes Duhan’s final try – held up by a Welsh leg – less of a worry. It’s possible it comes into play for determining the mid portions of the table, but let’s not fret too much about something that is four games away. But then…
To finish, here’s your cut-out and keep section for Irish pundits to reference when they want to talk about the Scotland team getting ahead of themselves. Because we are in fact one big team, we are overwhelmingly positive all the time, we all think the same and Finn Russell definitely told me this after the game*:
Scotland are amazing, we might even be the best team in the world, definitely better than Ireland, we’re definitely going to win the Grand Slam in fact we are thinking about it already to the exclusion of all else, especially not the France game in three days. The only other thing we are thinking about, to be honest, is how amazing at punditry Matt Williams and Ian Madigan are. Basically we are too mouthy. PS keep the roof open.
*no he didn’t.