We probably should have beaten Wales last Saturday, but Wales deserved their win because they played more intelligently and took their chances. We made too many wrong decisions, and sometimes even when the decision seemed correct, the execution was poor.
In particular, Wales got ahead on the scorecard because they had the sense to kick penalty goals instead of going optimistically for the touchline. England did the same thing against South Africa at Twickenham and so managed to bring off a one-point win despite doing next to nothing in attack over the 80 minutes.
Admittedly there were persuasive, if not compelling, reasons for Scotland to turn down chances of kicking goals in the second half. They were behind on the scoreboard and a converted try is worth more than two penalty goals. Then they had scored so easily from a five-metre lineout in the first half that it was reasonable to think they could do so again. Unfortunately they failed. I suspect that, if Greig Laidlaw had been there as captain, we would have taken the points, and by doing so, have put more pressure on the Welsh. That said, our failure to turn so much second-half possession into points owed more to the excellence of the Welsh back-row than to any Scottish inadequacy.
No doubt we would have won if Huw Jones hadn’t missed tackles on the Welsh tryscorers, George North and Jonathan Davies, but the first owed much to the clever and confusing lines run by the Welsh backs. As for the second, he went high, presumably in an attempt to prevent Davies from passing out of the tackle and was met with a powerful old-fashioned hand-off. To those who have been excoriating him, one would say that if you put the tries Jones has scored or assisted on one side of the scales and those he has cost by missed tackles on the other, the balance is very heavily in his favour. Nobody’s perfect. Andy Irvine wasn’t the greatest defensive player, but you always wanted him in the team; the same, I would say, with Huw Jones.
Today’s match is important in itself, and also in the context of preparation for the Six Nations. Happily, it should also be entertaining. Gregor Townsend has called the Fijians “the most natural rugby players in the world” and of course their brilliance in Sevens has been recognized for decades. If their record in the full game is disappointing, it’s also easily explicable. First, they almost never get the chance to play any of the Tier One nations at home. Second, their widely-scattered players are rarely together long enough to be well organised. So, characteristically, Fiji score wonderful tries and lose matches. It is however no longer the case that these natural players are also naïve. Most of them are now battle-hardened, playing club rugby in England, France and indeed Scotland. To underline their quality, Bill Mata has been outstanding for Edinburgh this season, arguably the best No 8 in the Guinness Pro14, while the lock Leone Nakarawa, now re-united with Finn Russell at Racing 92, was the star of the Glasgow team which won what was then the Pro 12 a couple of seasons ago. Put it another way: if they had been qualified for Scotland they would be two of the first names on Townsend’s team-sheet.
Meanwhile, New Zealand, fresh or, some may hope, still a bit jet-lagged, from playing in Tokyo last week, are at Twickenham against an England side that must be as much relieved as delighted to have escaped defeat last week. That they did so owed almost as much to South African errors as to their own heroic and well-organised defence – defence that was marred only by the succession of penalties given away by Maro Itoje in the first quarter of the game.
Fortunately for England, the Springbok hooker, the otherwise excellent Malcolm Marx, overthrew at a couple of five-metre lineouts, so that England didn’t suffer from Itoje’s stupidity. Moreover at the end of the match they benefitted from their opponents’ poor judgment. As the Springboks recycled and recycled in the England 22, and battered again and again at the line, I would guess that South African fly-halves of old were shrieking at the television: “you’re one point behind – you don’t need a try – DROP A GOAL”. But there were no cool heads on the field.
Finally, as to that unpunished Owen Farrell tackle in the last play of the game, all one can say is that if this didn’t merit at least a penalty, there are lots of players yellow-carded or red-carded this autumn for dangerous illegal tackles who will be feeling hard done-by, even believing that they have grounds to bring an action for wrongful dismissal.
Still Eddie Jones says Farrell doesn’t get the protection he should get from referees.