Scotland v Ireland: Gregor Townsend warns cards can be costly

They’re not quite being handed out like confetti but the increase in yellow and red cards has given Gregor Townsend pause for thought ahead of Scotland’s long-awaited return to the Six Nations.

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend is mindful of the increase in yellow and red cards. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend is mindful of the increase in yellow and red cards. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

More than a month after the narrow defeat by Wales, the Scots will face Ireland at BT Murrayfield on Sunday looking to regain the momentum they generated by the win over England on the opening weekend.

The long lay-off caused by the postponement of the France match has afforded the Scotland coach time to reflect on a couple of moments of indiscipline which proved costly against the Welsh.

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Townsend has been pleased generally with his players’ self-control, and it was particularly impressive at Twickenham, but there have been a couple of cards; a yellow for Finn Russell against England and a red for Zander Fagerson against Wales.

Jamie Ritchie returns to the Scotland side after missing the Wales game due to a hamstring injury. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

The Scots dealt admirably with Russell’s sin-binning but Fagerson’s 53rd minute sending-off proved more costly.

Townsend felt his side didn’t deal with the dismissal as well as they could have which allowed Wales to come back into the game. He has stressed to his players the need to remain disciplined against Ireland, in particular to avoid the concession of penalty upon penalty. However, the coach was pleased with large parts of the performance against a Wales side which edged the game 25-24.

“I thought some of the rugby we played in the first half was the best this squad has produced,” said Townsend. “But there were some lessons in there too. We need to make sure we are not following up an error or a penalty with another error or penalty, which is what we did just before half-time when I think there were four penalties in succession.

“Our discipline has been really good - we’ve got the lowest penalty count of any team in the Championship - but there have been a couple of things that have cost us - the red card and those penalties that came in succession.”

Sam Johnson will replace James Lang at inside centre. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

Ireland have won nine of their last ten games against Scotland and the home side’s cause is not helped by the absence of Fagerson whose suspension opens the door for WP Nel to make his first start for Scotland since the 2019 World Cup. The veteran tighthead’s inclusion is one of four changes Townsend has made.

Jamie Ritchie and Sean Maitland both return after recovering from injuries which caused them to miss the Wales game, and they replace Blade Thomson and Darcy Graham at blindside and on the right wing, respectively. There is also a recall for Sam Johnson who is preferred to James Lang at inside centre.

Cam Redpath, who made such an impression at 12 on his debut at Twickenham, remains sidelined by a nerve-related neck injury. “We don’t expect him back in full training for a week or two at the very earliest,” said Townsend.

Fagerson’s red card was only the third ever for Scotland in the Six Nations but the feeling is that we could be seeing a few more in the months and years to come, with referees instructed to take a tougher line.

Sean Maitland returns to the Scotland XV on the right wing. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

“It’s been rare for us to have yellow or red cards,” said Townsend. “We’d not had a red card [before Fagerson’s] in the four years we’ve been involved as coaches.

“It’s something we talk about. We are conscious of the trend over the last two or three weeks where there have been more cards given than ever before.

“So you’ve got the prevention which is making sure you don’t give away those penalties or cards. But then you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the cure too. What’s the solution when we’re a man down or the opposition are a man down?

“In the England game we did very well when we were a man down. At times in the Wales game we made it too easy for them to exploit the fact that we were a man down.”

In the absence of the suspended Zander Fagerson, WP Nel will be Scotland's tighthead prop against Ireland. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

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The Irish match will be refereed by Romain Poite, the French official who took charge of this fixture two years ago when he managed to incur the wrath of the then-Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw.

“He doesn’t seem to like us,” Laidlaw said in his on-pitch interview after Ireland’s 22-13 win.

As you would expect, Townsend struck an altogether more diplomatic tone when asked about Poite yesterday.

“He’s a very good referee,” said the Scotland coach. “He’s refereed us a number of times, and a lot of top matches.”

Fagerson’s red card for charging into a ruck and making contact with Wales prop Wyn Jones “above the line of the shoulders” provoked much debate, especially when the Scotland man was handed a longer ban than Peter O’Mahony whose transgression for a similar offence for Ireland against Wales in round one seemed worse.

“It is very tricky because it’s the one area in the game where you have to be aggressive, especially when people are contesting for ball, and there’s a likelihood that you are going to connect with the upper body of that player if their head is close to the ground,” acknowledged Townsend.

“It is different from the high tackle because in that case you make a conscious decision to go to a height which puts you in trouble, whereas when you are clearing contact you have to be low, aggressive and quick, so we’ve got to make sure that we are showing proper technique and that we’re winning races before the jackler has a chance to get on ball.

“If you lose a race then you are likely to be coming in with more pace and the jackler is maybe latched onto the ball, so it is a tricky area and we’ve seen more cards given.

“Zander’s one was very rare for us. Our contact work has been excellent in the first two games, as has Ireland’s.”

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