AS WE rationalise Scotland’s latest hard- luck story and the national side’s ability to appear to do everything possible to win a Test match, without actually winning it, Cardiff now looms on Scotland’s horizon as the testing stage of progress or regress.
Scotland’s default in the RBS Six Nations has been one victory, eight of the 15 championships since Italy joined the party in 2000 having left the weary support clutching a solitary success. Hence the recent controversial claims that the Six Nations might be better off without the Scots.
Ian McGeechan claimed two wins in each of 2001 and 2002, Frank Hadden a trio in 2006 and Andy Robinson added a draw against England in 2010 to a famous Croke Park win in Ireland, but duly paid for that with Scotland’s second whitewash two years ago.
Scott Johnson again lifted the bar on taking over last year and steered Scotland to wins against Italy and Ireland, which means failure to finish this campaign with victory in Wales will be a retrograde step. But the margins are tight. Had Tim Swinson listened to match referee Chris Pollock with three minutes to go on Saturday and backed off contesting a ruck ball, the chances are Scotland would have kept the French out as they had all day and won their second game of this season.
Had Duncan Weir not made the schoolboy error of rushing a long pass to try to exploit an overlap, when passes through the hands would have done the job, Scotland may have been heading to Cardiff seeking a third victory.
But they are not, and Johnson wonders why the Scots can be a pessimistic lot. What Scotland have done with their stirring performance at Murrayfield was to remind the critics that this team does deserve its place at the Six Nations, is just better than the Italians, at least the equal of an admitted out-of-sorts French side and probably closer to Ireland than the opening match suggested.
But still the squad was a dejected bunch after having victory snatched from them with less than three minutes remaining on Saturday. Prop Geoff Cross, central to the scrum’s improved performance, admitted as much.
“It is desolate,” he said, shaking his head. “Desolate. We let them off the hook and the time to change it is now past. I was very proud of the guys working behind me in the scrum. I am the thin end of the wedge, the nail and the rest of the boys are the hammer and they did a great job in driving me forward. The French boys were proud, technically aggressive and a great challenge and we enjoyed that.
“But we feel that we successfully snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. And we did so mainly through our penalty count, I believe. That is a failure in execution in some of the skills we are trying to achieve. Until we get that right we will suffer the consequences like we suffered this weekend. Ultimately, that was a brutal and painful but useful lesson in controlling the game, keeping pressure on the opposition and protecting yourself from the opportunities that you must not give them. We have to learn and our behaviour has to change if we want to go forward. I am confident we will.”
Scotland invariably produce heroes and while David Denton attracts RBS Man of the Match awards like bees do honey, and Jim Hamilton was back to his best on Saturday, the work of tighthead Cross in bringing himself back to the fore is a great message for Scottish rugby. We wrote last week of his impending departure from Edinburgh, as he still awaits any contract offer, and the fact that he had played just ten games in total this season, but none for the full 80 minutes, and yet he reminds all on Saturday, including the French front row, just how much brute strength, doggedness and sheer willpower he retains to become what should have been the anchor to a famous Scottish win.
The 31-year-old can only recall twice having played the full match for Scotland in 27 appearances, and the fact that Johnson desisted from replacing him with Euan Murray was a measure of his performance. But the Welsh had Scotland in all sorts of problems in the scrum last year, and won the match right there.
Coming off a beating by England at Twickenham yesterday – it leaves Stuart Lancaster’s men seeking a big victory in Italy to pip Ireland and France to the Six Nations crown – Wales will be seeking to put some things straight in the Cardiff finale.
Scotland’s last win against Wales was at Murrayfield in 2007, a 21-9 victory in which respective captains Chris Paterson and Stephen Jones contributed all the points with their deadly boots. The last time that Scottish voices sang in delight in the Welsh capital was 12 years ago, when Gordon Bulloch’s brace of tries carried his side to a 27-22 triumph. The years 1982, 1984, 1990 and 1996 stand out as the other glorious days for Scotland in Wales in the past 45 years, so it does not happen often.
Having righted the scrum and lineout, and rediscovered paths to the try-line, the one area that Scotland need addressing in the coming days is the rapidly rising penalty count. The French official Jerome Garces is back in charge – he also whistled the Calcutta Cup match – with Scotland having three southern hemisphere referees in the other games. Differing “interpretation” is rearing its head again after Kiwi Pollock penalised both tackled players and tacklers contesting the ball on the ground at Murrayfield, which left Scotland reeling from 13 penalties against.
The Scots are easily the biggest offenders in this year’s tournament, averaging more than ten per game, and Wales will undoubtedly seek to exploit that in front of a home support and with a referee whose memory of Scotland is of the abject, misfiring display against England.
Wales’ loss of Leigh Halfpenny to a shoulder injury will matter little if Scotland’s indiscipline continues, as Rhys Priestland and Dan Biggar are able goal-kicking deputies.
Varying interpretations make the game frustrating for players and supporters but, in common with the squad mantra of blaming no-one but themselves for failures, Cross insisted that it was up to Scotland to rectify that to provide a winning finish to the championship and a genuine sign of progress.
“All that they [referees] can really do is what they can see consistently,” he added, “and that can be subject to change depending on which laws are being looked at at which time, and being enforced more energetically.
“That’s something that I can’t control but if the refs’ interpretation does change then it’s for the players to understand those interpretations and execute the skills appropriately.
“There are opportunities in the things that you do well in a game and it’s important to take those opportunities, and we did against France, though not as much as we’d have liked. I’m really proud of the good work that the guys did, but as I’ve said we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory primarily through the penalties we conceded. We fix that and we will have a much more powerful and effective game to take to Wales, and I am confident that we will.”