The gut-wrenching nature of the third Test defeat in Santiago del Estero has left an indelible mark on those who played in it, none more so than Zander Fagerson.
“The third was a big game for me, it was my 50th cap so I remember it pretty well,” said the prop. “It ate me up all summer. We were in the game playing well but in that last 20 minutes or so we just fell away. Then they got their tails up and a few passes of quick play and they scored in the last play of the game.
“There were moments when we could have put that game to bed. We were held up over the line and then they went down the field, discipline costs us, they get the scrum and go down the field and score. That one definitely hurt and I am looking forward to making amends on Saturday.”
Scotland played some of their best rugby of the tour in Santiago del Estero but squandered a 15-point lead in the final 30 minutes to allow their hosts back into the game, with Emiliano Boffelli applying the coup de grace in the final seconds. The winger’s late, late try swung the series in Argentina’s favour and Scotland, who had led 28-13, ended up losing 34-31.
The inability to see out games from a winning position has continued to haunt Gregor Townsend’s side in the autumn series. They led Australia 15-6 with 27 minutes remaining but ended up losing 16-15. Against New Zealand, a fortnight later, they were 23-14 up going into the final quarter only for the All Blacks to recover and win 31-23. Fagerson is reluctant to ascribe these setbacks to mental fragility but the squad has been availing itself of the services of Aaron Walsh, a mental skills coach who is on secondment from the New Zealand-based Chiefs.
“It’s such a high-performance, high-pressure game these days that literally it’s the smallest things,” said Fagerson. “A penalty here and they go halfway down the pitch, get a lineout, strike off it and get a try. It’s all about being in the moment, sticking to our systems and processes. That’s where we sometimes get undone when boys try to solve things on their own. The strength of us in trusting our systems. When you try to solve things on your own that’s when we give away stupid penalties. That’s a key work-on for us.”
Scotland’s discipline has been less than squeaky clean thus far, with 14 penalties conceded against Australia, 11 against Fiji and 13 against New Zealand. There have also been yellow cards in each of the games, for Glen Young (Australia), Stuart Hogg (Fiji) and Jack Dempsey (New Zealand).
Townsend felt missed chances in the first 50 minutes against the All Blacks were more relevant that the fateful final quarter but he acknowledged that Scotland “have to be better in those last 15 minutes”. The coach added: “In the Australia game we went from a situation of being nine points up and almost scoring a try, to giving away a penalty and yellow card and being one point behind. But we did come back after that and had a chance to win [Blair Kinghorn missed a penalty in the final minute].
“The weekend there [against New Zealand], it was different circumstances, but we feel we should have been further ahead on the scoreboard. Yes, we could have done better in the last 10-15 minutes. They made inroads into our defence which had been really strong up until that point.
“In Test rugby now, it’s so competitive between every team in the top 10 in the world that if you slip off at any period including the last 10 minutes it will, come back to bite you, and if you don’t take your opportunities then it is going to be a much tougher game to win.”
Argentina followed up their series win over Scotland by winning two from six in the Rugby Championship. The victories were memorable ones; a 48-17 dismantling of Australia in San Juan and an historic 25-18 triumph over the All Blacks in Christchurch a fortnight later.
The win over Eddie Jones’ England at Twickenham earlier this month was another eye-catching result and although the lost to Wales last weekend, Townsend knows Scotland face a searching examination. “They played a very tough brand of rugby,” said the Scotland coach. “Once they get over the halfway line they are ambitious, they like to play. They are rightly one of the best teams in world rugby right now.”
The latest World Rugby rankings have them at sixth, three places above Scotland, but the Scots can move ahead of them if they win by more than 15 points at Murrayfield.
Scotland, you feel, would take a victory of any sort as they look to end a largely disappointing year on a positive note. Seven defeats in 11 Tests so far leaves them on the debit side for 2022, regardless of the result against Argentina, but there were spells last week against New Zealand during which Scotland played their best rugby of the year.
“We were in the game for so long and it was just that last little bit, so lots of lessons to be learnt,” said Fagerson. “It’s a short week, but you have to bounce back straightaway. All eyes on Argentina and we’re looking to go out on a high with a performance we can be proud of.
“We’ve shown glimpses but we’ve not done a full 80-minute performance in games. We have to go out there and be ruthless, take it to them for the whole game and come away with a win.”