IT IS only game one in the RBS Six Nations Championship and so Scotland coach Scott Johnson worked hard to look for “silver linings” in his team’s 28-6 defeat to Ireland yesterday, but he admitted that he was not going to turn his back on his young players.
He spoke last week of the need for consistency and in The Scotsman on Saturday we identified two key areas in which Scotland had to be up to the mark in Dublin – consistency and finishing. Making fewer mistakes than Ireland and finishing more chances.
Despite putting in a mammoth effort in defence and managing to enjoy a good share of possession despite set-piece hiccups Kelly Brown’s side failed those tests; they failed to be accurate and consistent in the crucial final third of the field and failed to turn possession into points.
Ireland, by contrast, hung on when things were not going their way, turning the scoreboard when they got the chance, and cleverly opted for goal when pressing the Scottish line and the Aviva screaming to go for the jugular with another try, and took the score from 18-6 to 21-6, 15 points: three scores. It was just 17 minutes into the second half, but Scotland were gone then. There appeared to be a lack of belief that they could score three times in the last 23 minutes, unsurprisingly perhaps given their try-scoring struggles of recent times, and as Ireland lifted the tempo Scotland’s conviction dissipated.
Johnson said: “The first half was pleasing, but what really hurt us was that try going into half-time, on the back of two or three of our indiscretions. There was a naivety in our performance. We had more attacks in their 22 than they did in ours but we couldn’t convert, turning the ball over and getting punished. We showed really good intent and that is the irony really, and the disappointing thing, because some of our work was quality.
“In the second half we let ourselves down a couple of times with turnover ball at crucial positions, lost a try off the maul, and then were caught between chasing the game and trying to solidify a position. We were trying to win the game. It’s frustrating because there were times when we looked really competitive, but I spoke during the week about the need for consistency and converting that into a game because after ten minutes we looked terrific.
“Look, it is my job now to see a silver lining and we spoke about the inexperience in that back line last week, but they are actually doing the hard bit quite easily, making half-breaks and putting themselves into good positions; it’s the finishing off. You get that with a bit of experience.”
It is not difficult to be critical of the Scotland performance yesterday, but one has to agree that there are not many options open to Johnson. Weir at stand-off was the choice of most astute observers, former players and coaches, featured in the media last week, while Duncan Taylor is the next best to Matt Scott at present and outside centre Alex Dunbar again rightly rated highly by many on account of the way he has grasped the nettle over the past year. Scott came off the bench in the second half and, after nearly three months recovering from injury, is likely to find his first start back is against England.
While the back line lacked the decision-making and confidence of their more experienced opposite numbers, some of the problems at the Aviva Stadium were not of the newcomers’ making, but more down to experienced individuals such as skipper Kelly Brown, Jim Hamilton and Ross Ford, who did not provide the consistent, accurate lead we have come to expect of them.
Johnson agreed that the performance was not good enough, but insisted: “We are where we are in some positions, but this is the start of some careers and I’d much rather be in the position of trying to develop the creative bit than the hard bit at the start. I think today we did enough with those inexperienced players and they showed that they could compete at this level. With a bit of perseverance and some time in the saddle this team will grow and it will be great. We’re just going to have to be patient.
“It is frustrating; I feel that too. The possession and territory favoured us, but it’s that release valve. If we could just convert the pressure into points. We did some terrific work on counter-attack, started to put pressure on them but then they won the ball at the tackle or we gave away a penalty. Fair play to Ireland. That’s where experience told in some areas today. I’d argue that we forced ourselves into that [more defence] at times today, and that comes from not converting your pressure. Add that to the fact that we were in the ascendency at the tackle, but then lost it. It comes back to my point that we did the hard bit, the first bit, well, but it’s the second bit we’re not doing well.”
He added: “The beauty of the group we’re coaching is that they can take this on the chin, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend it’s something else. To get better you have to acknowledge what it is you need to do to get better, and if that’s in public then that’s where we do it. We may have to go to a dark place and bring some torches. But we’re not going to run away.
“We’re going to encourage these kids to keep doing what they’re doing but just do it better and understand how they can improve.”
The test now is how much they can learn and apply in six days.