Yet again a self-inflicted blow proves to be costly after the most heroic of displays
Although the general consensus is that the gap between the big boys and the little guys has narrowed markedly at this World Cup, there have still been precious few shock results. Japan beating South Africa on the first weekend was a whopper, Argentina besting an injury-ravaged Ireland yesterday a few notches down the seismic scale before, deep sigh, Scotland came within a flea’s eyelash of pulling off a humdinger of their own.
Arguably, however, the most jaw-dropping surprise of the entire tournament came on Saturday when Scotland forwards Ross Ford and Jonny Gray had their bans thrown out and were free to start what would become an epic quarter-final against Australia at Twickenham – World Rugby disciplinary panel in common sense shocker!
The old PG Wodehouse line about it never having been hard to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine contains a grain of truth and, in the build-up to the game, when thoughts that Ford and Gray might find themselves on the pitch seemed a most forlorn hope, the straw being clutched was that a sense of injustice might galvanise Vern Cotter’s troops.
The problem with that is that sometimes injustice can grind you down and, rightly or wrongly, it sometimes feels like we Scots have the cards stacked against us when we take our place at rugby’s top table.
So it was perhaps predictable that the brief ray of sunshine in Ford and Gray’s reprieve would soon give way to a mighty maelstrom of new grievances on an emotional rollercoaster of an afternoon which proved almost impossible to bear for even the most hardened veterans of Scottish sporting hard-luck stories.
South African referee Craig Joubert scuttled off at the end after controversially deciding that, in a World Cup where referrals to the Television Match Official seem to be made to ensure a player’s laces are tied properly, the most decisive match, tournament and, for heaven’s sake, potentially life-changing moment of the whole shooting match so far was not worthy of a quick gander and a chat with the Kiwi kleip of a TMO who had seen Sean Maitland packed off to the sin bin – a debatable call which cost Scotland a crucial try at the start of the second half.
These are talking points that will be chewed over in the days and weeks to come but, in any analysis of yesterday’s extraordinary events, it cannot be emphasised often enough how heroic a performance that was by the Scots and how proud they should be in running the tournament second-favourites to the absolute wire in a 35-34 classic. When Mark Bennett sprinted clear in the pouring rain after intercepting to put Scotland unbelievably ahead in the closing minutes it is hard to think of a try since Tony Stanger’s Grand Slam-clinching one in 1990 that has sparked such euphoria in Scotland rugby fans. What a moment.
And yet, when heart rates had returned to something approaching normal levels, the cold, emotion-free analysis of the game will reveal that, if Scotland “wuz robbed”, then, far from the first time, they assuredly picked their own pockets at crucial times.
Rugby loves a buzz phrase and the new one seems to be “exit strategy”. It refers to how teams get out of danger zones, relieve pressure on themselves and, put simply, “get the ball up their end rather than ours”. A painful truth is that the “exit strategy” Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld scribbled on the back of a fag packet for Iraq can often seem more smooth and sound than those employed by Scotland in times of strain. A missed touch here, a lost lineout there, any small victory often appears to be followed by a self-inflicted blow.
Scotland’s failings at the restart have been well documented but sadly that phase of the game actually escalated from concern to a bit of a shambles yesterday. There is an argument to be made that, if Scotland had better performed the basics of securing possession from the opposition kick-offs, they would be looking forward to a semi-final this weekend.
The presence of Scotland’s most capped and experienced forward, Ford, and, arguably our best right now, Gray, was a massive boost to Scotland.
The young lock, who packed down with his brother Richie, brings a metronomic consistency and there is a rumoured stat floating around that he hasn’t missed a tackle in two years, though it may be longer than that. The return of Ford allowed Cotter to field his first-choice front row, the Kelso man joining his Edinburgh mates Al Dickinson and WP Nel and crucially getting the better of a confident Australian scrum.
Ford departed in the 54th minute and, although his throwing in is by no means perfect, you wonder if his experience would have avoided the reckless long throw his young replacement Fraser Brown went for which, ultimately, put the crazy, calamitous, controversial chain of closing moments in motion. When it comes to “exit strategies” from tournaments Scotland could inadvertently write the book. We have a million and one of them, each more agonising than the last.