Just when you thought Scotland had exhausted all possible routes to losing a game, inflicted every grievous act of self-harm and taken a lifetime’s worth of misery, they found a new way to heap despair upon themselves.


Stuart Hogg is a fabulous rugby player and may very well grow into a fine captain. If you wanted the ball in the grasp of any Scotland player with the Irish try-line – and no Irish defenders – beckoning, it would have been him. Hogg is big enough and smart enough to accept that his failure to dot down was a cataclysmic error, a mistake that will gnaw at him in quiet moments and be televised and tweeted and talked about endlessly in the days ahead. It was utterly unfathomable.

Hogg will know too that while he will be the story and to some, the villain, it is not solely because of him that Scotland lost – far from it. They should have taken seven points from that venomous foray early in the second half, but still left with three. They had a ridiculous glut of golden field position and grimace-inducing, must-score moments but couldn’t make any of them count. Their list of butchery runs as long as the Clyde, but here is the potted version.

With 90 seconds on the clock, Scotland power into Ireland’s 22, a rousing premonition of the snarl to come, but are penalised for holding on. It’s the Test match in microcosm. On 20 minutes, they spill from a line-out drive. Four minutes later, another penalty for not releasing. Five minutes after that, they cough up the ball in contact and in the last minute of the half, yet another call of holding on goes against them.

On 45 minutes, Huw Jones shimmies and arcs on a glorious outside break, but his pass finds Jordan Larmour, not Nick Haining or Sean Maitland outside him, both of whom have a clear gallop to the line. On 50 minutes, Ali Price lofts a sloppy, chase-less chip in the vague direction of the corner flag.

He gets lucky – Ireland make a hash of running it back and a minute later comes Hogg’s clanger and an Adam Hastings penalty. With three minutes left, Scotland are pummelling furiously at the Irish line. Their juggernauts take them to within a foot of the paint. A score seems certain, and yet it isn’t. Holding on. Penalty Ireland. And in the final attack in the final minute of the match, they spill another one at the base of a ruck.


In total, there were at least 11 visits to the Irish 22 and six points to show for them. In their past four games against Ireland, Scotland have now scored only two tries.

Four of those deep Scottish raids ended in Irish penalties for holding on. In the end, Scotland conceded 14 to Ireland’s nine. Not all of them were correct. Mathieu Raynal, the French referee, often allowed the breakdown to degenerate into lawless warfare, a pugilist’s battleground to which Scotland laboured to adapt. Every team cheats at the ruck and every team sneaks offside as prolifically as they can; the simple truth is that Ireland are much better doing it and getting away with it than Scotland.

A callow team with new voices in the coaching staff and new men on the field can be forgiven for their lack of streetsmarts, but not for passing up chance after chance and possession after possession like this.


The colossal wastage is all the more gut-wrenching given the magnificent work Scotland did to repeatedly launch themselves in to the danger zone. Not for an age have they matched, and often bettered, a physical juggernaut like Ireland for aggression, belligerence and forward power. Not for an age has the Scotland scrummage been more than stable platform but a real weapon. The big men of the pack stepped up in a very big way. Defensively Scotland were more resolute than they were for the entirety of last year. The way they spoiled and sacked the Irish maul was joyous.

Gregor Townsend’s strategy fitted the players he used and a game like this will seriously ease the pressure on him after a dismal 2019. There was a blend of high-tempo, Glasgow-esque razzle and bruising dynamism from the heavy artillery.

And there were some immense performers out there. You could name-check and lionise virtually the entire pack, the grunt of the front three, the tireless effort of the locks and the brilliance of the back-row, but two of the new men made especially seismic impacts.

Rory Sutherland was a demon in the loose and a force at scrum-time on his first Test outing in nearly four years. Sutherland has fought back from a hideous double-adductor rupture that put him in a wheelchair for weeks with an extreme diligence. Scotland have long lacked a loose-head who can shunt in the tight and plunder yards in open prairie but Sutherland, fit at long last, looks like the answer. The number one jersey is now emphatically his.

At number eight, tossed into the Aviva shark tank on his first cap Haining delivered an exceptional display. Less than three years ago, he was playing for Jersey Reds in the second tier of English rugby.

He has only made eight appearances for Edinburgh, none of them against the biggest and deadliest opposition. But he brought such confrontational explosiveness in everything he did, dynamiting Irish carriers, spearing Scotland forward. This is the back-row dog the team have needed.

You have to praise the class of Hastings when so much had been written and rumoured about Finn Russell’s exit from the camp and fortnight back and what Scotland were going to do without him.

Hastings was very impressive on his first Six Nations start. He is not on Russell’s level yet but he is flying at Glasgow and absolutely ready for a run of Tests. Would Scotland have fared better with their main man at the helm? Quite possibly. A flourish of Russell wizardry might have applied the final touch of ruthlessness, but even without him, Scotland ought to have gone over at least once.

Outside Hastings, Sam Johnson was monstrous in possession but shipped one brainless penalty without it. Jones still looks a little limp in defence but near his riveting best when surging forward on the ball.

All of this good stuff, so many positives to point out, and yet the upshot is the same. Ireland hung on and hung on and hung on some more, but in the biggest moments, legally or not, they landed the most telling blows. Defence often wins games, and Ireland’s is pretty damn relentless.

Scotland’s flaws remain. A maddening red-zone impotence, a vulnerable line-out, and a frequently dense lack of discipline. They bossed Ireland in a hugely encouraging way for chunks of the contest.

They played more rugby, beat more defenders and had over 60% of the second-half ball. How they didn’t score is a puzzle that would have had Einstein scratching his bonce. This may be the launch-pad for a heartening championship, but in the cold light of day, it is a whopping missed opportunity.

Watch: Sonny Bill Williams’ Toronto Wolfpack debut ends in defeat.

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