In his post-match media conference, Gregor Townsend spoke with weary frustration about the horrors of what he had just witnessed, the indignity of the pasting that had befallen his Scotland players in Yokohama before the rugby world, a movie he must feel like he has seen a thousand times over.
The coach was dealing with the rubble Ireland had made of his men, but he could just as easily have been addressing any number of occasions where Scotland have been completely dynamited and careered into error-ridden mayhem. Townsend is enduring the most brutal of rugby groundhog days.
When he spoke of errors and energy and aggression, he could have been talking about Scotland’s heinous start to the 2018 Six Nations, when they were blasted to kingdom come with degrading ease by Wales. He could have been fronting up after Ireland put them away by 20 points a month later, after they were trounced in Paris then in Nice this year by French power, or after Wales and Ireland came to Murrayfield in the Six Nations and took the sting out of his team’s high-tempo rugby.
Townsend knew exactly how Ireland would play in Japan and why they would choose to play that way. He had been preparing his team for this very moment for months, even years, and yet he could do nothing to stop it. If the performance was an abomination, the press conference was every bit as damning.
“We didn’t start with the energy, accuracy and aggression required to beat a team like Ireland,” the coach said in the aftermath.
He couldn’t explain why the most experienced Scotland XV ever fielded at a World Cup would behave so passively. As condemnation goes, this was about as scornful as Townsend gets. It was a fierce summation of an opening half in which Scotland shipped three tries, fell off tackles, got monstered in contact and coughed up a dreadful amount of ball.
Supporters can handle their players trying their guts out and losing to a worthy adversary. They can stomach being outclassed or outmanoeuvred, but outfought? Lacking in “energy and aggression”?
Here's the player ratings after a difficult day for Scotland.https://t.co/V38ZeVk9tC
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 22, 2019
That’s a red rag to a bull. This stuff should be the absolute bare minimum, cast-iron non-negotiable every time a player pulls on the jersey. You could walk down Roseburn Street on a match-day, pluck fifteen supporters from the crowd and stick them on the paddock and they’d give you “energy and aggression”.
This isn’t some comatose summer Test outing at the end of a savage season, this is World Cup rugby we’re talking about here. It’s the grandest stage the sport has to offer and the very summit of most of these blokes’ careers. It’s a match Townsend and Scotland have had in the backs of their minds for years. And yet, for whatever reason, the players couldn’t get up for it. They delivered limp, timid garbage. They were devoured by Ireland’s overwhelmingly superior intensity, dismembered like a baby seal tossed into a shark tank. Three tries down inside 25 minutes. Good luck overhauling that deficit against Joe Schmidt and Ireland – never mind trying to do it in a torrential downpour and stifling humidity.
There is a blueprint for beating Townsend’s Scotland and Ireland followed it with ruthless efficiency. Bludgeon their pack, hem them in their own half with an aerial bombardment, watch them wilt in the face of confrontational power, spoil and scrap and deny their play-makers the opportunities to thrive. Suffocate them until the errors flow and the wheels fall off. Feast on their mistakes. Ireland have done it before. So have Wales (twice) and France (twice) and, for a half, at least, England, and still Scotland can’t seem to stop it happening.
We know how good this lot can be given a sniff with ball in hand. We know they have the tempo and the dexterity and the breakneck speed to lacerate any defence in world rugby. We know they can dazzle with Finn Russell at the wheel plotting a course of devastating, orchestrated chaos with an arsenal of rapiers flanking him.
But we know all too well that Scotland have obvious, long-standing flaws. We know that they don’t seem capable of deviating from Townsend’s high-risk, rapid-fire style with any real success.
We know too that they can be conquered by brawn, that they frequently wither in a slugfest and that they are outrageously and unrelentingly inconsistent, within games and between them.
We know they have a maddening habit of starting games in a stupor. Ireland took five minutes to score their first try in Yokohama. France had crossed the line in the first and second minutes in Nice and at Murrayfield last month. During the Six Nations, Ireland scored two unanswered tries inside 16 minutes; Wales got one and England three in less than a dozen. That energy and aggression Townsend was talking about? It doesn’t seem to have gone missing overnight.
We know Scotland are hopeless on the road. They last beat a Tier One team in the World Cup three tournaments ago, a nail-biting grind against Italy. They last won in Dublin in 2010, in Cardiff in 2002, in Paris in 1999 and at Twickenham 36 years ago.
In nine away matches against Tier One opposition during 2018 and 2019, including Sunday’s humiliation in Pool A, Scotland have conceded an average of just under 28 points a game. To put it another way, that’s equivalent to four converted tries – a try bonus point per Test. In the Six Nations, they averaged more missed tackles per game (29) than any other side. A top international team can’t operate on this flimsy basis and hope to be taken seriously as trophy contenders.
By way of comparison, in the same nine-game period against top-tier opponents, Wales and New Zealand average just under 20 points conceded, South Africa, Ireland and England around 21.
When asked about Scotland and their prospects this week, Sir Graham Henry, the great former All Blacks coach, gave an appraisal that was at once flattering, withering and entirely accurate.
“They play some fantastic rugby, which is a pleasure to watch,” he told RugbyPass. “It’s being consistent, isn’t it? They’ve got the attack game beautifully sorted and I’m impressed with Finn Russell, I think he’s a good footballer. They use the ball superbly.
“But it’s trying to get a platform to be able to do that in the big games that they play consistently.
“They’ve got some quality athletes who can play. Whether they’ve got the ability to put together a number of games on the trot at a high level is the challenge for Gregor.”
Stuart Hogg was very honest as he reflected on a difficult day for Scotland.https://t.co/xGi48ywwug
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 22, 2019
Townsend is flanked by successful coaches. He has leaders and undeniably fine players in his team, but none of them have come up with the answers to solve these gnawing sores. In his 27 months in charge they’ve been by turns majestic and miserable.
Samoa are next, an immensely athletic team who can play some fantastic rugby. They have taken Scotland to the wire in their previous two meetings, both try-laden shoot-outs decided by a single score.
All those questions about Scotland’s resolve in the battle, their staying power in a physical brawl and the stinginess of their defending are still there, looming larger now than ever before. They follow this squad around like dark clouds. The challenge for Townsend is to find a path to light and escape this cycle of woe.
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