Hogg takes it on the chin as Scotland lose a comedy of a match

A running gag in the comedy classic The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin centres on the relationship between the boss and his underlings who’re always trying to impress him.

Finn Russell's box of tricks includes footballer prowess with the ball at his feet and this would bring him Scotland's first-half try
Finn Russell's box of tricks includes footballer prowess with the ball at his feet and this would bring him Scotland's first-half try

The boss, called CJ, listens for a bit but then cuts off the underlings in mid-flow by pompously pronouncing “I didn’t get where I am today … ” This reminds the underlines of their station in life. “Great!” one will say, as CJ explains how things will be done. “Super!” echoes the other.

Is this what the relationship between Scotland and Ireland is like? Scotland, not so much trying to impress as get one over on Ireland and their CJ - CJ Stander - but ultimately always being reminded of the dark blues’ station, firmly below their rivals in the rankings?

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Before yesterday, Ireland had won all of the last five and nine of the previous ten. They’ve dominated the fixture so far this century with a sound business plan: use prime Irish beef to keep the ball away from Scotland’s flair guys, or at least to slow it down.

The policy hasn’t changed much with Stander collecting his 50th cap at Murrayfield. The policy hasn’t won many points for artistic impression, but so what? The scores that mattered were that Ireland had wiped out the Scots’ lead in history going right back to 1877 and before Johnny Sexton kicked off the two countries were locked on 66 wins apiece. So, as Hamish Watson told The Scotsman on the eve of the game: “If there’s a time to beat Ireland it’s now.”

Standing in Stander’s path in the back row, Watson had been everywhere in the win over England, less conspicuous in the defeat by Wales and like the rest of his team needed to be “great” in this one and preferably “super” too.

In this pair’s division Stander was first to show in a rollicking Irish attack from which Scotland would have been grateful just to concede a penalty. Stander continued to be prominent but no more so than Jamison Gibson-Park, a new cog in this grinding Irish machine, a splendidly-bearded scrum-half with sparkingly quick hands.

Covid-permitting, this is a Lions year. Stander has the blazer; Watson wants to be wearing one. At standoff, Johnny Sexton has the blazer; Finn Russell is a size 42 chest, thanks. The duel at 10 was always going to be crucial and Sexton struck first with a kick-pass setting up Ireland’s opening try. Scotland couldn’t get going.

Maybe these two sum up the differences between the teams: Sexton is Professor Pragmatic while Russell is Flashman. Safe pair of hands vs sleight of hand. But Sexton, with another cute kick, almost set up another try. Russell, in his only break in the opening quarter, fumbled, though there was plenty of that going on all over the park.

In the countdown to the game the Scots asserted that they knew how the Irish would play - same as always - and that in one of the recent defeats they’d been well on top, a claim which was contested. “Predictable!” shouted one lot. “Delusional!” countered the other. This contest didn’t get to where it is today without being niggly and narky.

On the field, errors aplenty, it was turning comedic. The sort of game where a hulking prop like Tadhg Furlong will impersonate a ballerina. Eventually, though, Russell impacted it, and there was yet more proof he has Magic Circle membership. Stuart Hogg’s football skills took the full-back clear and then Russell, also using his feet, chipped the ball over James Lowe to score. The try needed checking for a knock-on but Hogg had used his chin. Chin? It was that kind of game, a bit bonkers.

Scotland were ahead for the first time but not for long, Sexton slotting another penalty. Right away Russell had the chance to reply but missed, and then Sexton, again, showed him how. You wondered if these would turn out to be five crucial minutes, Ireland staying coolest amongst the craziness.

Ireland began the second half as they did the first: ferociously. Urgent, thundering attacks brought them more penalties and another try, though it wasn’t crystal clear that Tadhg Beirne had touched down.

The team in green were tightening their grip of the game and Scotland, in their anxiety, were rushing things, knocking on, skewing lineouts, and then Russell overcooked a kick to the corner. But, out of almost nowhere, in the opposite corner, replacement Huw Jones produced a darting run for the tryline that used to be such a regular feature when he was a sure starter.

A bunch of changes saw Russell depart and scrum-half Scott Steele, so a wee guy, join the Scotland scrum. If you thought this was funny then what about the referee Romain Poite developing a problem with his whistle just as the Scots thought they’d scored another try? His chirruper sorted, the French official promptly confirmed the barnstorming Watson’s score and the match was all-square.

But just as Scotland could only briefly hold onto their advantage in the first half, they conceded yet another penalty and Sexton, who at 35 can still control a rugby game, popped over the winning kick for his hard, powerful, clinical team.

Just like against Wales, Scotland had lost narrowly at the death. Not part of the plan after the glory of Twickenham. Not great, not super. A sitcom of a match, though, if that’s your thing.

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