Allan Massie: Wounded England a daunting prospect

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IRELAND have beaten England by ten points and France by seven. Scotland have lost three matches by a sum total of 13 points. Ireland are a team that knows how to win.

Scotland one that doesn’t – not yet anyway. You might say this is a matter of experience, and Ireland certainly have a fair number of old hands. Yet though there are several young and inexperienced members of the Scotland XV, others – Sean Lamont, Greig Laidlaw, Euan Murray, Ross Ford, Alasdair Dickinson and Johnnie Beattie – have years of international experience, even if, sadly, it has mostly been experience of defeat. It’s perhaps relevant that when things went to pieces in the last ten minutes on Saturday, half of that group were off the field. When Laidlaw was replaced too, one wondered who was then supposed to be leading the team. Of course there’s one easy get-out for this last defeat. If, with a couple of minutes to go, Peter Horne, who otherwise had a pretty good game, had found touch with that penalty which offered an unexpected escape from a five-metre scrum, we would probably have held on to win. Yet the truth is of course that we should never have found ourselves in that position. A match which should have been won fairly comfortably was lost because of our own mistakes.

Simone Favaro celebrates Italy's dramatic win at BT Murrayfield. Picture: SNS

Simone Favaro celebrates Italy's dramatic win at BT Murrayfield. Picture: SNS

For instance: we went ten points up after Mark Bennett’s alertly taken interception try was converted. Then we made a botch of the restart, Sean Lamont stepping into touch as he fielded the ball. Shouldn’t he have let it go? Instead Italy had the lineout and set up a driving maul which resulted in a try. 10-5. Then when a Laidlaw penalty has stretched our lead to 13-5, we failed yet again to secure the restart. The ball was knocked on and fielded by Blair Cowan in an offside position: 13-8. In contrast Ireland fielded every one of England’s restarts, and so were able to resume control of the game. But we have been making a hash of opposition restart for years. Why?

There were other old failings. Our recycling of the ball from the tackle was slow and often ill-controlled. The contrast with Wales in Paris and Ireland in Dublin was marked. There is very little you can usefully do with slow ball, and so we did very little. It’s partly because we received slow ball that our handling let us down. Incidentally, in Dublin, Ireland handled so securely and were so efficient at the breakdown that the game was, I think, well on into the second half, before England had the put-in at a scrum.

Our kicking from hand was poor, too long and not high enough, rarely putting the Italian defence under any pressure at all. Before the match in Dublin a statistic relating to the number of times the kicking team regained possession appeared on the screen. Ireland had regained 19 per cent of their kicks, Scotland 2 per cent. A kick, it is always said, is only as good as the chase, but on Saturday some of Hogg’s and Laidlaw’s kicks almost never gave the chaser any chance at all.

The first Italian try from a driven maul, and the effectiveness of their mauling throughout the game, should have taught us that they were always likely to score if they had a lineout deep in our 22 – which is of course how they won the match. But, given the Italian supremacy in this area of the game, wouldn’t it have been sensible to compete in the air, instead of allowing their jumper a free catch? When England, 3-6 down, stupidly spurned the chance to kick a penalty and went for the five-metre lineout, Peter O’Mahoney read the throw and took the English ball. The point surely is that if you compete you may win the ball or at least disrupt the opposition, perhaps forcing a knock-on, but if you don’t, then they can happily organise the driving maul.

In the absence of Richie Gray and of Jim Hamilton, who would surely have deputised for him if he had been fit, we looked underpowered up front. Tim Swinson is a fine player and he and Jonny Gray have worked well together for Glasgow, but a bit more beef is probably needed at lock in international rugby. The scrum was further underpowered when Hamish Watson came on in place of Johnnie Beattie, with Blair Cowan moving to No 8. Beattie had made little impression on the match, but his strength and experience might have been useful in the last fraught minutes.

Some of the late substitutions were puzzling. What is the point of bringing a player on for the last two or three minutes of a match ? There was certainly a case for replacing Laidlaw with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne because of the younger scrum-half’s speed and strength, but around the hour-mark rather than at the fag-end of the game. And, unless he had received a knock, I couldn’t see why Bennett was taken off.

Well, it was all very disappointing, and the trip to Twickenham to face an England side eager to get their show back on the road after their defeat in Dublin looks at least as daunting as it has done since 1999 – the last time we really came close to winning there. Nevertheless the statistic I quoted in my first sentence is relevant. To have lost three matches is bad. To have done so by a sum total of 13 points shows how close to victory we have been – in all three games actually. There hasn’t been much between Ireland, England, Wales and France so far, and there wasn’t much between France and Scotland in Paris, Scotland and Wales in Edinburgh. Ireland showed that England are some way short of being the finished article, though closer to that than we are admittedly. But not by that much, and significantly in Dublin their discipline under pressure was no better than ours has been.