Six Nations 2019: Scotland learn another brutal lesson against Ireland

Six Nations: Was Hogg fouled before Ireland opener?

Even after the last whistle had been blown at Murrayfield, Scotland continued to add errors to their mistake mountain.

When Greig Laidlaw took the unusual step of calling out referee Romain Poite in his on-pitch post-match interview, he griped about a relatively minor incident when he could have focused on something altogether more relevant to the story of Scotland’s day.

The manner of Stuart Hogg’s removal in the 17th minute, and the fact that the foul play that seemed to cause it was missed by every single official, would have been more deserving of the captain’s ire than a knock-on given against Josh Strauss with half an hour remaining.

In the 10th minute, Hogg was taken out late and cynically by Peter O’Mahony. To balance it up, Ireland may have issues with some of the attention dished out to Johnny Sexton who, himself, had to make an early exit. But the Hogg incident was a stonewall penalty and possibly a yellow card. As Ireland cranked it up in the move that brought their first try, Hogg was clearly in bother and miles out of position. Scotland had 14 men in that moment.

They did, of course, make a spectacular mess of dealing with that Irish attack, but Hogg’s absence didn’t help. He came off soon after.

‘Errors of every shade’

Scotland 13-22 Ireland: Romain Poite ‘doesn’t seem to like us’ – Laidlaw

As Scotland search for the consistency that would make them contenders, “what if” moments like Saturday are painful. Groundhog Day has more variety than these one-that-got-away experiences Scotland churn out against the elite rugby nations – Ireland last year and Ireland this year; New Zealand two autumns ago; South Africa one autumn ago; Wales away in November.

For a team that has been rightly lauded for its adventure and danger, Scotland scored three points in a deeply-flawed second half on Saturday, scored five points in the second half a year ago in Dublin, scored three points in the second half against the Springboks, and didn’t score at all in the second half against the Welsh in their most recent visit to Cardiff.

If these are growing pains then you wonder when they are going to stop. In all of these Tests they had ball and opportunity, but errors killed them. On Saturday, they played some breathless stuff. They were in Ireland’s half 73% of the time in the opening 40 minutes and, of that 73% they were in Ireland’s 22 for 37% of it. And yet they came away with just 10 points. They trailed 12-10 at the break.

In the first half, they had three huge moments in or around Ireland’s five-metre line, the last of which went on for 25 phases and almost five minutes. Scotland couldn’t break a brilliant Irish defence.

In the second half, they didn’t have the same kind of field position but they had multiple moments when they were beginning to get up a head of steam only to load the shotgun and empty the barrel into their own front foot.

A knock-on – albeit a controversial call – by Strauss as they began to motor in the 50th minute, a needless forward pass from Finn Russell as they came again in the 55th minute, a forced pass from Allan Dell to Grant Gilchrist as they looked to build something in the 60th minute, a stolen line-out as they pushed for the small comfort of a losing bonus point in the 78th minute.

There were errors of every shade against a below-par Ireland, a team that had little of its Grand Slam mojo but still won. They won’t mind so much how they did it. Winning was everything for them after their pummelling by England.

‘Missing key men harm Scotland’s challenge’

Six Nations: Scotland 13-22 Ireland highlights

Scotland are inching closer to the big guns – millimetre by millimetre – but the one reality that continually hits them in the face is that their chances of surviving the loss of significant players are less than that of the Irelands of this world.

The Irish were missing their two best centres (Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw), their world player of the year (Sexton was in the stand for most of the game), their understudy at loose-head (British and Irish Lion Jack McGrath), three hugely influential locks (Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson and Devin Toner), their biggest ball-carrier (CJ Stander) and their Grand Slam open-side (Dan Leavy).

Even without all that muscle, they had enough to win. They were average, but they had sufficient power to get themselves through. Gregor Townsend doesn’t have the same depth, the same capacity to win consistently at this rarefied level while missing so many key men.

He lost Hogg agonisingly early, then lost Ryan Wilson at half-time. Blair Kinghorn was terrific, but Scotland’s challenge would have been so much stronger had Hogg, who looked electric, stayed on with Kinghorn’s energy, industry and class being injected into it when things were slowing down.

For Wilson’s part, he probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves outside the Scotland bubble, but he’s an intelligent and belligerent ball-player, a character and a leader. He was missed.

His injury meant that Scotland’s back-row of last season – John Barclay, Hamish Watson and Wilson – were all absent for the final 40 minutes. If Scotland’s squad on Saturday had those three plus Jamie Ritchie – a massive performer – in the 23, then you’re potentially talking about 80 minutes of firepower and excellence.

If they had WP Nel or Zander Fagerson adding ballast and experience off the bench when the excellent Simon Berghan tired, then it’s that bit more convincing. If Duncan Taylor can ever be restored to Test-match fitness then Scotland’s match-day squad has a real chance.

Ireland had grunt and energy coming off the bench in the shape of Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane. That’s their depth on display.

No international team can ever realistically hope to have a clean bill of health, but Scotland need to get close to it to get in the shake-up in tournaments. They’re now looking at France in Paris as a match to revive their challenge. It’s a game against a bonkers machine that’s eminently winnable, but a Scottish victory on the road against one of the big guns in the Six Nations? You’ll believe it when you see it.

After that it’s Wales at home and England away. It’s a brutal run-in, but then, beyond Italy, pretty much everything at this level is brutal when you’re not ruthless.


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Publish date : 2019-02-10 13:58:54

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