Mounting count of penalties set tone for finale

A last minute penalty against Scotland is awarded by referee Chris Pollock. Picture:Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
A last minute penalty against Scotland is awarded by referee Chris Pollock. Picture:Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
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IF EVER there was a time for cliches about small margins, this was it, and Scott Johnson isn’t a man to let a gold-plated opportunity pass him by.

After this oh-so-close defeat against a surprisingly limited French side, the pain of defeat was etched all over interim coach Johnson’s uniquely expressive mug as he raked over the ashes after a scintillating effort from his men. He searched for the moment to employ his trademark quips and we didn’t have long to wait, with Kiwi referee Chris Pollock bearing the brunt of the Aussie’s ire. It was, apparently, the ref wot won it.

“That’s without a doubt my most disappointing day as Scotland coach,” said Johnson. “I’m gutted, absolutely gutted, but this is part of the growing pains, that’s just the way it is. But we were on the wrong end of the penalty count again. When we get to the 60-minute mark we’re facing an 11-2 penalty count and we throw an intercept. It’s a 14-point turnaround.

“It’s a fickle world this sport. Last week we were on the other end, but this was a game we should have won. I felt we were the better team, no doubt about it. To show such resolve on the back of that penalty count and to still dominate the contest was incredible – sometimes the scoreboard just doesn’t reflect what happens in the contest.”

Throughout his post-match analysis, Johnson dropped in pointed comments about the referee’s decision-making process, and it’s fair to assume that a Christmas card will not be winging its way to Pollock’s home later this year. Not unless it’s written in poison pen. Johnson said: “If I could have changed anything [about the say we played] I’d have changed the execution.

“We were really happy with lots of the things we did, such as the way we attacked their lineout. I thought our intent was good, we wanted to run them off their feet and that’s what we did. We wanted to make it a fast game.

“What I’d change is I’d try to get the penalty count somewhere near even instead of 9-2 at half-time. We need to look at ourselves but two weeks on the bounce we’ve lost so many of the 50-50 decisions and, when the competition is as close as it is, it’s really difficult to justify a big swing like that. That’s what I struggle with. There were just too many penalties against us in important areas and it ended up killing us. We’ll look at ourselves but there will also be a couple of nice conversations outside the rugby pitch.”

While he’s at it, Johnson could do with having a word with himself for taking off the outstanding Jim Hamilton with just seven minutes to go. His replacement Tim Swinson, no doubt desperate to get into the action, flung a crazy inside pass as his first action, and his second was to give away the winning penalty.

Johnson, though, was happy with that decision, saying that “Jim was injured or fatigued – we felt it was the right time with him, and let’s just say that he was breathing heavy”.

Yet talk of that last penalty merely got the coach back on to his penalty count hobby-horse.

“The last penalty was one of those where you think it’s probably justified, and in fact I called it myself,” he said. “But the one before, in the 76th minute when we’re piggy-backing deep in their half, was very disappointing because we had the ball and we had control of the ball. You can sit there and nitpick but it’s the 50/50s you don’t get which really frustrate you.

“We’re trying to get uniformity in the way the laws are applied, but the difference between individual referees is just too different. We’re now coaching depending on which referee we get. We have a huge dossier on every referee – I even have the secondary telephone number he doesn’t know he’s ever had. We are the largest part of the problem, but we also don’t seem to be getting any crumbs coming our way. When you have a competition as close as that one, when we’re leading the game, and you’re down by 11-2 on the penalty count, then I smell something there, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”

If Johnson felt frustrated by what he clearly saw as the referee’s bias towards France, he could hardly take issue with his side’s part in the other turning point in the game, the long, looping miss-pass from stand-off Duncan Weir which could not have been better telegraphed to Yoann Huget had it been sponsored by Fed-Ex. Yet Johnson was staunch in his defence of the player.

“Duncan fell down on the intercept but you need to look at the guy’s character because he came straight back and kicked the penalty which put us back in front,” said the Scotland coach. “Sometimes there’s not execution but there is character and I can work with that. We’ve backed the lad and didn’t put another No.10 on the bench because we think he has a skill-set which we like and which we think will work in international rugby and we’ll back that judgment. So it was unfortunate, and wrong execution but we’ll just have to live with that. I’ll take the character every day.”

With their final match of the Six Nations a trip to the Millennium Stadium, where Wales could well be needing a big win to retain their Championship, Johnson’s men will have plenty of opportunity to show that character before this tournament has run its course.