Allan Massie: Encouraging signs in European defeats

Simon Berghan, second left, is penalised for obstruction and Magnus Bradbury's try against Montpellier is chalked off. Picture: SNS/SRU
Simon Berghan, second left, is penalised for obstruction and Magnus Bradbury's try against Montpellier is chalked off. Picture: SNS/SRU
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You can win playing rather badly and you can lose playing rather well. Immediately after a match, the former will seem preferable, on the grounds that a win is a win is a win, and indeed we have all quite often felt happy and relieved when Scotland have won a Six Nations game even in utterly undistinguished style. Yet, when things have settled, a defeat in which the performance was good may be more satisfying than that sort of victory. So, despite losing last weekend, neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow had reason to be in sackcloth and ashes mood, even though both have reason to regret mistakes.

After a slow start and conceding a try, Edinburgh outplayed Montpellier for much of the match, indeed, for almost all of the second half. With a little more composure they might have won, for Simon Berghan’s over-eagerness to support the admirable Magnus Bradbury caused him to obstruct a Montpellier player.

This was all the more irritating because, if that player had been able to make his tackle, Bradbury’s power would surely have carried him, ball and tackler over the line.

Conversely, as it were, it was Blair Kinghorn’s missed tackle on Benjamin Fall that allowed the wing to score Montpellier’s second try. Kinghorn’s technique was faulty.

To tackle a winger with space to swerve away, you have to launch yourselves in a dive tackle, aiming as it were for a point beyond him and with both feet off the ground. There are illustrations of such a tackle in all the old “How to play Rugby” textbooks, but Kinghorn’s feet remained rooted to the turf. He’s still young and will learn – quickly if he looks at these old textbooks.

To come so close to winning in France says much for the spirit and skill of this Edinburgh side, evidence, too, of the remarkable job Richard Cockerill is doing at Murrayfield.

Given that Glasgow were at home, a defeat without even a losing bonus point means that their cup campaign has almost been knocked off the rails on day one. In mitigation, one should acknowledge that Saracens are one of the two strongest clubs in the cup, and one should add admiringly that Glasgow’s defence was tremendous and that there was indeed precious little between the two sides.

In extenuation, it’s also fair to remark that the failure to check whether the Saracens centre Alex Lowokoski had been tackled into touch before he passed the ball in the build-up to the only try of the match was not only regrettable but decidedly strange in these days when referees will so often seek advice from the TMO for possible knock-ons, forward passes and cases of obstruction. Moreover, though they are now dignified with the designation “assistant referees”, the first job of the man running the line is what it always has been: to indicate when and where a ball has been kicked or taken out of play.

The failure of the touch-judge either to raise his flag (as he should have done) or to suggest to the referee that maybe video evidence should be consulted can’t be said to have cost Glasgow the match, but it certainly made it easier for Saracens to win it. At the same time, Glasgow made their own mistakes and took wrong decisions at key moments. It’s not only in retrospect that their refusal to kick for goal and their belief that they would score from a five-metre line-out and driving maul seems misguided. Rugby is awash with statistics these days and someone must know what percentage of times a team scores a try when a penalty kick has been put into touch in preference to attempting to kick a goal. Of course, in the succession of line-outs at the very end of the first half, Glasgow came near as near could be to scoring a try, while Saracens were fortunate to escape a yellow card. Nevertheless, no try was scored.

There were, indeed, several attacking line-outs close to the try-line in the match, but no try. This doesn’t make the odds look good. In contrast, regular goal-kickers will have around an 80 per cent success rate. Admittedly, a try will most often be worth seven points – more, therefore, than two penalty goals.

Circumstances alter cases. There are certainly times when putting the ball in touch and going for the try is the better option but sometimes it’s over-ambitious and the old advice to “take the points” makes better sense. Still, it’s not surprising when you think how often teams batter away with pick-and-drives and one-pass moves in the opposition 22, often getting nowhere, while the option of a drop goal is forgotten. Points put pressure on the opposition, especially in a close, low-scoring match like last Sunday’s at Scotstoun.

Still, it was a riveting game, a reminder that low-scoring ones are often more compelling than any tryfest.