At the beginning of last month, Scotland coach Gregor Townsend was ashen-faced and shaken after another 4-1 try-count loss to Wales in Cardiff on the opening Six Nations weekend. On Saturday in Dublin he was bullish, if a tad bewildered, after witnessing his players go toe-to-toe with the eventual champions only to be punished for failure to convert chances and errors at key moments.
Some online headlines and Sunday paper front-page puffs had Ireland “thrashing” Scotland on Saturday, which is a wholly inaccurate characterisation of what unfolded at the Aviva Stadium.
The facts speak for themselves. Scotland were ultimately well beaten. Indeed, it was clear when Ireland scored a third try at the start of the second half to move 21-3 up that any hopes Townsend’s men were going to get that much-craved big win on the road had gone.
Even the unconverted Blair Kinghorn try which soon followed only produced the mildest flicker of any sense that a miracle comeback could be conjured.
Scotland did a lot right and had Ireland genuinely rattled at times but it was a performance punctuated by errors and squandered opportunities at the worst possible times.
The label “work in progress” remains firmly attached to a team who have shown they have it in them to shock the big boys but also themselves with sudden spasms of naivety and lack of composure at big moments.
“It might sound daft because we lost four tries to one but that mentality, the way we defended, the detail in our game apart from the finishing is what we need to do to win away from home,” said Townsend.
“We caused a very good side a lot of problems and we asked a lot of our players. We delivered most of what we wanted from an away performance.”
The main thing missing, of course, referred to those two-on-ones frittered away with the tryline begging by Huw Jones, who failed to find Stuart Hogg in the first half, and then Hogg himself in the second when he erred twofold by going wide for Kinghorn and missing the wing with the pass.
Peter Horne’s needlessly risky long pass being intercepted by Jacob Stockdale for the first of his two opening-half tries was another black mark.
“We’ve finished pretty well in the championship and in November but we didn’t do it today,” said Townsend after the game.
“Seeing what the players do in training I’m sure that on another day they’d take those opportunities.”
Tries by Conor Murray and substitute hooker Sean Cronin sandwiched Kinghorn’s fine finish on his first Scotland start which came just after the Hogg blunder.
It marked an eventful afternoon for the 21-year-old who had time off for a head injury assessment in the first half.
While Townsend was blunt and honest about the failures of his team, on Saturday he was keen to emphasise the positives. “I want to mention a couple of aspects. I thought our forward pack was outstanding,” he said.
“We respect the Irish forward pack a lot and for us to do so well against them gives us lots of encouragement for the future.
“I thought Simon Berghan [pictured above] did well. We now have depth at tighthead. And Blair Kinghorn on his debut was fantastic.
“Playing Ireland away from home with their running threats and their intricate plays, also their kicking game, Blair looked confident, made a few breaks and did really well, so that was very pleasing.”
Up front, Scotland did show up extremely well against one of the most honed and formidable units in world rugby. Hooker Stuart McInally had another magnificent game, skipper John Barclay was tireless and flanker Hamish Watson never took a step back against the big men in green.
“You can look at the game two ways,” added Townsend. “We turned up, played well, caused a team lots of problems, put ourselves in position to win a game.
“Or we can go right, forget all that stuff, the team didn’t put in any effort and we did finish off two and ones.
“I’ll watch the game two or three times in the next few days and I know which way I’ll think about it in three or four views of it and it will be frustrating.
“But having seen bits of the game when we committed, when we caused Ireland problems, it’s pleasing to know that this team can take on the best and cause them problems.
“It’s more frustrating for the guys. They’re the ones who felt they let their team down by not finishing two-on-ones.
“We’re proud of how we played. We wanted a response away from home and we got one in terms of performance.
“We didn’t get it in terms of the result and that’s what we’re here for, but that performance with finishing a bit better will be good enough to beat the best teams in the world.”