You can put it down to lack of leadership, muddled thinking or even hubris, but in the heat of the battle Scotland were found wanting.
The tourists had just conceded a third try but still retained a 31-27 lead when the penalty was awarded inside the Argentine 22. A successful kick at goal would have moved them seven points clear. Instead they gambled and kicked for the corner in the hope of scoring a try from the lineout which would have put them out of reach. It didn’t work.
Bold or foolish? Hindsight will tell you the latter and it’s impossible to escape the feeling that had Blair Kinghorn gone for goal and not the corner then Scotland would not have lost in Santiago del Estero.
As it was, Argentina found fresh impetus in the final ten minutes. They won a penalty close to the Scotland line, opted for a scrum and shipped the ball out to the wing where the outstanding Emiliano Boffelli cut inside and scored the winning try with the last play of the game. His conversion from wide on the left made the final score 34-31 to the hosts, giving them the series 2-1.
In the immediate aftermath, Gregor Townsend refused to criticise his players, pointing out that they had scored a try in similar circumstances from a lineout in the first half after kicking to the corner. But the coach must know the decision in the second half was the wrong one.
“We backed ourselves and just didn’t get the ball over the try line,” Townsend said. “That was unfortunate but it was something we will learn as a group.”
Townsend has made great play on this tour of “strengthening the leadership group” but Scotland have had three different captains over the course of four matches in South America. Has the coach, in fact, diluted the leadership group? We remain no clearer as to knowing who will captain Scotland in the autumn and into next year’s World Cup.
Luke Crosbie was skipper for the A international against Chile before tour captain Grant Gilchrist took over for the first two Tests against Argentina. The lock was rested for the final game and Hamish Watson held the reins in Santiago del Estero but even he was taken off with six minutes to play. It was his first time as captain and it would be unfair to lay the blame solely at the door of the flanker for the decision not to kick the three points.
Stuart Hogg, Scotland’s skipper for the past two and half years, was left at home, given the summer off after a gruelling couple of seasons, but it remains unclear if he will reclaim the captaincy.
Townsend has said the door remains open for Hogg but his involvement in the unauthorised night out in Edinburgh after the Six Nations win over Italy was a black mark. Hogg is unlikely to play in Scotland’s next game, against Australia at Murrayfield on October 29, because the match falls outside the international window and English-based players will not be available.
Townsend will argue that this tour was the chance to try different things, including the captaincy, and there is some merit in that but the coach will be alarmed by the manner in which his side squandered a winning position in the final Test.
Failure to see out a match in which they led by 15 points with 30 minutes remaining betrayed a worrying lack of game management. It’s invidious to compare, but the contrast with the way Ireland held out against New Zealand was stark and it hardly needs restating that the Irish are in Scotland’s World Cup group, along with holders South Africa.
On current form you wouldn’t give the Scots a prayer of qualifying from Pool B and there will be plenty of chatter over the next few days about Townsend’s suitability to lead Scotland into the tournament in France next year.
He already has one failed World Cup campaign on his CV and the progress he made with this group in the 2020 and 2021 Six Nations seems a long way off. There is a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ feel to Scotland under Townsend. Their inability to deal with restarts is ruinous and the malfunctioning lineout was also alarming on Saturday.
But throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not the answer. Townsend gambled with this tour by using it to blood new players and rotate the captaincy.
He thought Scotland could still win the series and, in truth, they should have but the Tests with the Pumas punctured a few myths, most obviously the one about this squad’s much vaunted strength in depth.
The reality is that this was a good tour for those left at home, in particular Hogg and Finn Russell. There has been a tendency recently to take for granted the pair’s contribution to Scottish rugby but not only are they the team’s creative fulcrum but they also provide a hard, competitive edge.
It’s hard to imagine Scotland losing in the manner they did with Hogg and Russell calling the shots and their inclusion, along with the return of Jamie Ritchie, Chris Harris, WP Nel Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown will add nous.
In the meantime, Townsend must sift through the good and bad of a series which began with an abject defeat in Jujuy, improved markedly with a win in Salta then unravelled at the Estadio Unico Madre de Ciudades as two tries apiece from Duhan van der Merwe and Ewan Ashman were countered by four from Argentina’s Santiago Carreras, Nahuel Tetaz Chapparo, Gonzalo Bertranou and Boffelli.