Yesterday’s earthquake in Paris complicates things for anyone looking ahead to next Saturday’s Calcutta Cup. Shorn of their main ball carriers in the forwards (Billy Vunapola) and the backs (Manu Tuilangi) England looked a little ordinary, unprepared for the speed and aggression of the French defence, now managed by the former Wales coach, Englishman Shaun Edwards.
Scotland’s own defence against Ireland was vastly improved and credit to Steve Tandy who had almost no time to stamp his mark. But it will need to make another step change in intensity if it is to contain a hugely motivated English team who will be hurting.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has the luxury of one extra day for his players to rest and recover from Dublin’s exertions. He needs to use the time wisely because, for all of Scotland’s competitive improvements, there is work to do.
The most obvious and the easiest Scotland fix is discipline. It was the first thing on Vern Cotter’s agenda and it was perhaps the only area where Scotland were considerably worse on Saturday than in Yokohama where they conceded six straight-arm penalties. Yesterday that figure was rose to 14.
Usually penalties are the result of pressure but many of those that Scotland conceded on Saturday were entirely avoidable. Ali Price tackled his opposite number from an (obviously) offside position, 40 metres from his own line and with the Scottish defence in good order, to gift Johnny Sexton three easy points. At the start of the second half Hamish Watson was pinged for not rolling, which gave Ireland an attacking lineout, then Sexton had the luxury of choosing a penalty against Jamie Richie for not rolling or Adam Hastings for a high tackle, both unnecessary, for another easy three.
Twelve minutes later we get an action replay. Hastings goes high, Ireland get an attacking lineout and a few phases later someone, possibly Fraser Brown, offends under his own posts. Scotland compounded one error with another. Twice in the space of 12 minutes. They were scrapping like junkyard dogs at the breakdown but they still have to scrap within the laws.
The two penalties, by Sam Johnson and Brown, for bumping Irish kick chasers off the ball were the worst of the lot because they were effectively calling the match officials stupid. Or blind. Or both. The hooker was carded for a dangerous tackle in the opening minutes at Twickenham three years ago but, with a little more clarity in thought and deed, he could captain this Scotland side.
And on the subject of captaincy, Townsend won’t strip it from Stuart Hogg in the middle of the tournament but it was an odd decision to give it to him in the first place. Hogg is an emotional character who wears his heart on his sleeve so his first reaction to a questionable call by the referee is born of angst or frustration and rarely endears him to the whistle-blower. At one point on Saturday the man who was supposed to be charming the referee ended up apologising to him.
The other reason to give the captaincy to someone else is practical. Several times in Dublin Hogg abandoned his post in the backfield to question the referee following a penalty. There is nothing to stop the opposition from kicking the ball into the backfield space that Hogg has just vacated and playing on.
Elsewhere, the accuracy of the Scots’ clearance work at the breakdown needs attention because Ireland managed five turnovers there. The Scots did not always clear the first green jersey over their ball and paid the price with CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony both making crucial steals on the Irish line. England breakaways Tom Curry and Sam Underhill are probably better poachers than their Irish counterparts and Eddie Jones will surely pick a natural No 8 between them.
Finally Townsend might want to tweak his starting XV. Sam Johnson played well in Dublin but his lack of pace was horribly exposed when he made that second-half interception. Matt Scott would bring not only greater pace but a more robust physicality to the No 12 shirt and the Calcutta Cup is nothing if not physical.