The chance to go two from two at the start of the championship and travel to Paris in two weeks’ time for a top of the table clash was within Scotland’s grasp but unfortunately for us all, a lack of composure at times inside Wales’ 22, a few key defensive errors and lapses in discipline left everyone dreaming of what could have been on Saturday night.
Inevitably there has been a lot of the all too familiar Scottish pessimism since the final whistle and an awful lot of discussion about the red card for Zander Fagerson but what has perhaps not occupied as many column inches and conversations are the good parts of Scotland’s game and the improvements from the performance at Twickenham.
The set-piece, whilst not faultless, functioned well, providing a great platform for Scotland to attack and score. The calmness and composure in the first 10 to 15 minutes to absorb a Welsh onslaught relatively unscathed is something we are not used to seeing. And an attack, which at times has stuttered over the last year, looked more and more threatening as the game went on. If Scotland can build on the good from Saturday and add it to the defensive dominance they showed at Twickenham then they will go to France with a massive amount of self-belief that they can win.
It is impossible however, to talk about the game without mentioning Scotland’s discipline and one incident in particular.
I felt at the time and I still feel now that Zander’s red card was harsh. A penalty, without a doubt. A yellow certainly. A red? There will be those who will immediately say I’m one eyed, part of the problem, that these types of offences are sanctioned as reds for my own safety as a player, but I just feel that there was enough mitigation for the sanction to be yellow and not red. For me, the actions of Stuart Hogg at the breakdown were enough to downgrade the red to a yellow. This does not mean that I am not in full support of doing everything we can to protect players on the field. Anything we can do we should be doing but, just for a moment, put yourselves in the shoes of a player currently playing the game.
Zander, like the thousands of other rugby players across the world, has entered and cleared rucks in exactly the same manner as he did on Saturday with the one different being they didn’t make contact with an opposing player’s head. Many of those ruck clears will have been clipped up and shared in team meetings the world over as the perfect example of how to remove a ‘threat’ at the breakdown. I’m not suggesting that this makes it OK but if World Rugby are serious about protecting players then they have to do something meaningful to change behaviours across rugby and the way the breakdown is coached.
When coming to his decision on Saturday, the referee spoke of the distance travelled by the Scotland tighthead when approaching the ruck and the speed at which he hit it. Why is this only considered when a player enters a ruck and makes contact with another’s head? How can we expect to keep players safe unless every time someone enters a ruck in this fashion it is penalised irrespective if it causes serious injury or not? If his entry is part of the consideration for what the sanction should be then surely every entry like it during the 80 minutes should have penalised?
It doesn't excuse the contact to the head and when you put another player’s health and safety at risk you have to just hold your hands up and accept what’s coming but there must be a better way of ensuring players are safe on the pitch.
Why was Wyn Jones not removed for a head injury assessment when, according to the officials there was direct contact to the head, with force. Is this not exactly the type of situation where we should be erring on the side of caution?
Later in the game it appeared that Alun Wyn Jones, the Welsh captain, suffered a particularly heavy collision and didn’t seem 100 per cent right as he slowly got back to his feet and re-joined play. In fact, the officials can be heard asking several times whether he was OK but again there was no cautionary check to be absolutely certain that it was safe for him to continue.
Likewise, later in the half there where several borderline challenges and an incident in which Liam Williams led with his elbow directly into James Lang’s head. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect the officials to pick up every single incident in the game like this but if we are serious about protecting players then shouldn’t that be the standard we hold them too?
This isn’t an issue solely for the officials. They do an incredibly hard job and I don’t envy them. If we really want to protect players on the field then the only way is to actually change the behaviours of the players. If there is a genuine belief that every single incident of dangerous or reckless play will be penalised and sanctioned then maybe we will start to see a significant change in how the game is played.