ON SATURDAY morning, Scotland were still in with a chance of becoming Six Nations champions for the first time. By evening, they had escaped being Wooden Spoon contenders by just a single score.
If France had snatched a match-winning try in that last play in Dublin, it would have been possible for them to overtake Scotland by beating Scott Johnson’s team at home this Saturday. Italy and Ireland would also have had to win another game each, so last place would still have been improbable. But no more improbable, surely, than that Saturday-morning prospect of Scotland winning the tournament for the first time since the Italians joined in 2000.
When each game counts for 20 per cent of your total, such apparent fluctuations are always going to occur. So what’s the underlying reality?
With two wins already under their belts, you have to say that Scotland, win, lose or draw in the Stade de France five days from now, have made a modest improvement this season. Modest, perhaps overdue, and certainly something that can be continued. And the best chance of continuing it is to appoint Scott Johnson and, if at all possible, Dean Ryan too, for the longer term.
Matt Williams used to moan about his players’ lack of basic skills. Andy Robinson tried to fit the squad into a style of play with which they were never consistently comfortable.
Johnson has done something simpler, but also shrewder, than the strategy attempted by those two predecessors. Rather than bewail his team’s shortcomings, he has accepted they are where they are, and gone about improving them step by step.
Every coach can tell you where you are going wrong. Most spectators can too, for that matter, but it takes a more perceptive coach, and perhaps a more patient one too, to work out how precisely he can help you put things right.
That’s what Johnson has been doing, along with forwards coach Ryan, who has so far stuck to his line that he has joined the national coaching team only for the duration of the championship. Breaking errors down into their component parts, showing why they occurred, and thus demonstrating how they might be avoided in future.
We tend to think that such remedial work should not be required at the highest level, but the reality is that the greatest athletes in the world all need that kind of help from time to time. The best golfers on the planet, for example, can discover some minor kink in their swing that needs ironed out.
When it comes to rugby, of course, Scotland are some way from being the best in the world right now, but at least Johnson has them heading in the right direction: upwards. And, while some obvious flaws remain, it is pretty clear how they can be mitigated, if not quite eliminated.
On Saturday, for all that Wales were marginally the better team in both attack and defence, it was easy to see how Scotland, rather than losing by ten points, could at least have lost by a narrower margin. On another day, with a different referee, the contest could have become distinctly more balanced.
Johnson was charitable in his post-match comments about Craig Joubert, highlighting the fact that the South African normally gives away fewer penalties than average, rather than setting a world record at Test level for awards that led to attempts on goal. “I am frustrated, but I have said in the dressing room we have to acknowledge our ills,” the coach said. “It is easy to criticise one man, but we have to look at ourselves and understand what we are doing wrong.”
True enough, but other than develop a telepathic understanding of when Wales were going to engage at the set piece, there was virtually nothing that the Scots pack could do. They were penalised for engaging too early, so they corrected that. They were then penalised for delaying the engagement, and hooker Ross Ford was warned that he would be yellow-carded if that offence were repeated.
When you’re told you’re too quick, then too slow, you have little choice but to try to engage at exactly the same split second as your opponents. Which means that, by decree of the referee, you have conceded an advantage to the other side, even when it is your own put-in.
For Ford, unfairly singled out by Joubert for blame, it must have been like coming up against some maddeningly contrary government bureaucracy. The only consolation was that the same problem is unlikely to recur with a different set of officials. The Scotland team and their supporters will not be the only ones hoping as much: the millions of neutrals watching on TV must surely also have felt that their viewing had been spoiled by the referee.
As we said, Wales were slightly better in attack, making the one line break in the match through George North and scoring the only try from close range. But if the scrum had been officiated in a different manner, if they had been on the back foot more often, who is to say they would have held out in defence?
Having said that, we should accept that, after the joy of those four tries against the Italians, the Scotland attack still has some way to go, but the back three of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser has looked impressive at times, and they are sure to get better the more often they play together.
There are other things to be encouraged about too. The exuberant aggression of Rob Harley, for example. The emergence of Duncan Weir as an option at stand-off is another instance, as is Greig Laidlaw’s form at scrum-half and as a kicker of points.
There is still some way to go before we have a team which comes close to comparing with our first-rate sides of the 1990s, but at least there are now a good few reasons to be optimistic about this Scotland side. If Johnson stays, and if he can persuade Ryan to stay with him, there will be two reasons more.