Arguably we should have beaten South Africa last Saturday, just as, arguably, we should have beaten Wales at the beginning of the month. In both matches we had enough possession and control of territory to win. Yet we failed to do so.
Quantity of possession is one thing, quality of possession another and, in both matches, the ball was too often delivered slowly and scrappily to Greig Laidlaw and his second-half replacements. South Africa turned us over several times; I don’t recall us winning one turnover.
This was the first match since his unfortunate injury in which we really missed John Barclay badly. If the Springbok fly-half Handse Pollard was named ”man of the match” and Finn Russell had, by his standards, an indifferent game, this was principally because Pollard was getting quick front-foot ball while Russell wasn’t.
There’s another way of looking at it. In the 2015 World Cup, an indifferent South African side dominated Scotland and won by almost 20 points. On Saturday, a much better one may have thought themselves fortunate to have won by six.
Argentina today pose a different problem: unpredictability. In recent months they have sometimes looked poor, even abject, as when a young Scotland side ran riot in the summer; at others very good indeed, as for much of their match against Ireland in Dublin. Moreover, in the Rugby Championship they beat both South Africa and Australia. But then one can’t be entirely confident about Scotland when it’s a question of consistency. And Gregor Townsend has shuffled his cards again.
The most interesting experiment is the coupling of Adam Hastings and Russell at 10 and 12. This may have the air of a “let’s see how it goes” move. If it works, splendid; if it doesn’t, we’ve learned something. It may prove exciting but, for it to be successful, they will need quicker and cleaner ball, preferably delivered from an advancing platform, than our back division got either last Saturday or three weeks ago in Cardiff.
Meanwhile, Brett Gosper, CEO of World Rugby, says that more yellow and red cards need to be handed out if players are to learn that they must tackle lower. Perhaps he is right, though I would guess that the message is getting through, if only gradually. Deciding when a tackle is dangerous is often difficult. A player may slip and find his head struck by a tackle which, but for the slip, would have been around his midriff. That tackle may therefore be dangerous, only because, inadvertently, the tackled player put himself in danger. I would say that while players are, mostly, adjusting their tackling technique, violent clearing out of opponents at the tackle point is more common even than it was a year ago, and usually goes unpunished.
On the other hand, referees are now very quick to penalise players for a deliberate knock-on. There are two reasons for this severity. First, the offence is usually easy to spot. Second, it may be interpreted as deliberate cheating, as indeed it often is when it prevents a pass reaching an opponent who has a clear run to the try-line.
But sometimes the referee over-reacts. I thought the yellow card handed to Willie Le Roux last week was absurd, because it seemed clear that he was genuinely going for an interception, not knocking a pass down or away. He knocked the ball up in the air, not down and, if he had caught it before it touched the ground, he wouldn’t have been guilty even of a knock-on. So even the penalty given against him seemed a wrong decision, and the correct one would have been a scrum, Scotland’s put-in.
Elsewhere, Japan’s first half against England was mighty impressive, and had one reflecting that we would rather they were in anyone else’s pool, not ours, in the World Cup next year. From a Scottish point of view it was therefore comforting to see England regain control in the second half and win by a handsome margin, unusual though this sentiment may be.
But if, for at least 40 minutes, England were sloppy, unsure of themselves and even rattled, Ireland in Dublin were masterly, setting New Zealand problems to which they couldn’t find answers. They may have done so by next autumn,but I wouldn’t bank on it. Ireland, South Africa and the Lions last year have all shown that the All Blacks can be beaten by a team that has a supremely well-organised defence and plays a limited game very efficiently when in possession. They have shown that New Zealand’s all-action, running and passing game can be contained and, after Dublin, I wondered whether the undeniably brilliant Beauden Barrett is the right stand-off for such matches, and whether the All Blacks might not be better served by a cool-headed game-manager and astute kicker like Dan Carter or Andrew Mehrtens.