WHEN Scott Johnson declared after victory over Italy that Scotland were still in contention for the Six Nations Championship, the general response might have been summed up in two words: a weary “Yeah, yeah,” derived from the knowledge that coaches have to say such things when they remain technically true, no matter how implausible in reality.
When the Australian made the same declaration after yesterday’s 12-8 win against Ireland, our reaction was markedly less dismissive. An honest assessment would suggest that Scotland still have no more than an outside chance of claiming the title, but they are still in there all right, and with only two rounds of fixtures to go.
At this stage of the campaign there is usually only one live issue of concern to Scots: the destination of the Wooden Spoon. This year, whatever happens over the next three weeks, there is at least a positive agenda for Johnson and his coaching staff to address.
“We’re still in the tournament – we are in it up to our ears,” Johnson said after a hard-won victory over an Ireland side who had the better of almost every statistic except the one that counts most. “That’s great for the fans and the team, but let’s not get carried away.”
We can expect Johnson to downplay expectations between now and the visit of Wales to Murrayfield on Saturday week, and he will be right to do so: this Scotland team are far from the finished article. But, having beaten Italy by scoring four tries, they found a different way to defeat Ireland, and so can at least add versatility to their list of virtues.
“I’m happy for the boys, because it showed a different side to us – we showed great resolve,” Johnson continued. “We could have been well behind at half-time. I’m happy, but there is still plenty of our performances we can improve on.
“There’s a human element in today that I enjoyed – it brought out the blue-collar boy in me. I’m proud of the victory, but the honest assessment is that we’ve got to improve.
“We took our opportunities, the few that came our way, and they didn’t take theirs. That was the sole difference. We’ve got to be honest and say that wasn’t perfect from us.
“We went in [at half-time] at 3-0 – I would have taken that 20 minutes into the game. We took it, and we took our chances, and they didn’t. But if we want to be a good quality side we’ve got to acknowledge that we have to work on a few things.”
Captain Kelly Brown, speaking as blood still trickled from his nose – the result of a collision with Ireland hooker Rory Best’s head – echoed the coach’s theme. “We sat down all week and we thought of a plan – and we didn’t do it out there,” the flanker said.
“As a side, we’re just really happy to get the win, but we know we need to improve. Because if we play like that against Wales in two weeks, we’ll not win that game.
“Whilst the skills weren’t absolutely spot on, I thought our work and fight and guts were very, very good. There was a lot of talk last week that we haven’t won back-to-back matches in the Six Nations since 2001. That’s two matches back to back, so we’ll enjoy it over the next day or so, but we’re aware that was by no means perfect and we’ll need to improve.”
For all that Scotland played remarkably well given their lack of possession, the fact remains that all the good work could have been undone at the death, when Ireland were awarded a penalty in the home 22. Some Scots teams of the recent past might have succumbed under the pressure, but this one held on, albeit with a little help from a knock-on by Ireland centre Luke Marshall.
“To be honest, I don’t know why the penalty was given,” said substitute lock Al Kellock, who came off the bench to win his 50th cap in the second half. “But as soon as the whistle goes, you’ve got to react. The backs were screaming for us to get back on to the line, so we did – and we dealt with it.
“It is magnified because it is the last few seconds of a game: all or nothing for the match. But we had defended our line well all game, for the most part. It was pleasing and telling, though, that we still had the line speed at the end to force them into another error.
“I don’t think that was the best defensive performance I’ve seen or played in, because they cut us open a few times. The best performances are the ones where you just keep smashing them behind the gain line. We had to scramble and things weren’t perfect. But that’s OK, given the conditions. We can definitely get better than that.
“It shows you that defence wins Test matches. I’ve been in plenty of games over the years where we’ve won without anything like the lion’s share of possession. The most pleasing thing about our game was the pressure we put them under when they had the ball.
“There are not very many matches that are text-book. That was what was pleasing about the Italy game, that we controlled it from beginning to end – but that doesn’t happen very often.
“You’ve got to take the wins when you can. Today we had to defend for the first 40 minutes, make an incredible number of tackles, then come out a bit more in the second half and get territory, win penalties and kick goals.
“I thought our scrum probably made the difference. If we go under pressure in the scrum, we’re in trouble. It’s a massive credit to the props and the whole front five.”
The lineout went well too, so the setpiece is a solid platform on which to build against Wales. Kellock accepted that yesterday’s statistics made improbable reading in the light of that 12-8 scoreline, and that Scotland may well have to do something different if they are to make it three wins in a row. Precisely what they do different hardly matters, he added. All that matters is a result which will have Scotland still in with a shout of the title – and this time it will be with just one game to go.
“Of course we can beat Wales,” he said. “Statistics will probably tell you that we need more possession, but statistics mean nothing when you win the game. But we can beat Wales. And we’ll beat them in whatever manner it takes.”
In the Ireland camp, meanwhile, there was nothing but raw dejection. Donnacha O’Callaghan said Ireland felt “a bit ashamed” by the defeat, but insisted the players should only look at themselves for an explanation of their latest implosion.
“This will dent our confidence and we must be honest with each other. It wasn’t good enough by us today. We’re not at Test level to learn, but to win,” the Lions and Munster lock said. “You can look around at other people, but it’s man-in-the-mirror time. No fingers are being pointed. That first win in Cardiff does feel like a long time ago.
“Playing for your country is special but you need to get results. You need that buzz, but this feeling is horrible. You feel like you’ve let everyone down and that’s the worst part. You’re a bit ashamed and that’s the way the players were in the dressing room.
“No one was eyeballing each other, everyone’s just scurrying around the place. It’s a horrible way to spend the next few weeks.”