Allan Massie: Scotland's major failing is not a new one - it goes back to the Calcutta Cup of 1994

I can’t recall who first said that New Zealanders – that is, the All Blacks – were Scots who had learned how to win.

There may be fewer Scottish family names in an All Blacks team today, but the quotation is still trotted out. Perhaps there is some truth in it. Here, however, is another point of comparison. Writing in The Times on Wednesday Will Kelleher observed: “When the All Blacks lose New Zealanders do not really do gallows humour. They do not find light in the dark or move on quickly.” Quite so, and, well, yes, how different from us Scots fans with or without typewriters or laptops. After indulging in John Fraser/Private Lawrie gallows humour – “we’re a’ doomed” – we seek out shafts of sunshine. Being resilient and accustomed to dark days, we can usually find there’s a flickering light at the end of the tunnel, even if it often feels like a mighty long way ahead.

Actually the next day, in the same newspaper, Stuart Barnes, having declared that, despite their gallant effort in South Africa, “Wales may have lost themselves even further in this falsest of dawn” averred that “Scotland have come out of their losing series in Argentina in surprisingly decent shape” this in the absence of “their undisputed leaders, Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell”. They had made some silly decisions. Nevertheless there was much that was good. Notably, they had “started the tour with a struggling set-piece but finished by mastering Argentina’s pack”. Fair enough, though one might add that our line-out was less than satisfactory.

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Of course you shouldn’t lose an international, or perhaps any match, when you are more points up than there are minutes left in the game. To do so suggests a loss of concentration. Moreover, we are entitled to ask if any of the dozen top-ranking teams in the world foozles as many opposition re-starts as Scotland. This is not a new failing. It’s been the case that for years now delight at a Scotland score has been followed by the sick feeling that we will fail to gather the restart and probably concede points.

It goes back at least as far as the Calcutta Cup match of 1994 when, one point behind as the game approached injury time, Gregor Townsend put us in the lead with a towering drop goal, only for us to fail to clear from the restart, concede a (doubtful) penalty, and so lose the match 14-15.

So many of our disappointments in recent years have come from lapses of concentration at times when things were going well. One thinks for instance of Hogg’s failure to ground the ball when over the try-line in Dublin in 2020, of the dreadful last ten minutes of the first half against Wales the following year when we had been playing brilliantly up to that point and the concession of one penalty after another let what had looked like a demoralised and witless Welsh side back into the match, which they went on to win, and of Chris Harris’ wildly inaccurate pass which cost us an all-but-certain try against France at Murrayfield this Spring just when we had recovered from a poor start and were playing well.

One is always of course more conscious of mistakes made by one’s own side than of those made by the opposition; nevertheless Scotland do seem to fail to gather restarts and get back down the field more often than our opponents; and the same may be said of flurried and therefore inaccurate delivery of what should be a scoring pass in the opposition 22. Long long ago such lapses in concentration might be excused, or at least explained, by the reflection that the international game was so much harder and more demanding than the club one that errors were understandable. But really this should no longer be the case in the professional game.

Over the last year Gregor Townsend has given opportunities to a great many players, some of whom had been on the fringe of the national team for a bit, others who had only recently come to the fore. I expect there will still be some experimentation during the autumn internationals. But there is surely a case now – injuries permitting – for having a settled squad and starting XV by the time of next season’s Six Nations. One appreciates that the professional game is in so many ways very different from the old amateur one, but it is surely worth remembering that the Grand Slams of 1984 and 1990 were both won by a team which, but for a couple of injuries, remained essentially unchanged for all four matches of the tournament.

Scotland players applaud Argentina off the field after losing the series-deciding test match at the Madre de Ciudades Stadium last weekend. (Photo by PABLO GASPARINI/AFP via Getty Images)

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