It was a subdued Scotland squad that set out for Argentina from Texas last night after Saturday night’s 30-29 defeat by the United States punctured the positivity that has prevailed since the start of the tour. The object now for the coaching team and the remaining 28 players as they prepare for Saturday night’s Test against the Pumas in Resistencia is to claim the victory that will mean the tour as a whole has been a success.
“It is a huge downer,” head coach Gregor Townsend admitted after seeing his side commit far too many errors and fail to match a high-energy second-half display by the USA. “If it was the last game on tour we would be even more disappointed, but we have one more game and we have a tougher opponent who have lost two games and will be fired up. We will have to be much better next week, but we can right a lot of wrongs with a winning performance next week.”
There were two debutants in scrum-half George Horne and No 8 Matt Fagerson, and five others making their first start. At times that inexperience was all too obviously reflected in some poor decision-making, but Townsend insisted that his selection had not been too bold, and that whatever the outcome of the match it had been worthwhile to give those players and others the chance to play themselves into contention for places at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
“We wanted to learn about players on this tour,” he continued. “We certainly wanted to give players opportunities to play. Maybe we could have had more off the bench and had more experienced players, but sometimes you don’t get the guys off the bench that early or get injuries elsewhere. We will know more about the players and how they handle adversity away from home against a team that were fired up, especially in the second half. It is not all good news, but at least we came out of here knowing that we need to be much better when we play for Scotland.
“As a team, we did not play to our potential. I take it on my shoulders that it was a selection with a lot of young players, a lot of guys winning their first caps, and it does not have that much cohesion in terms of them having played before.
“There are risks; not everyone is going to play their best in their first start. We did not achieve what we wanted to achieve.”
It all began so well for Scotland, with Stuart Hogg slicing through the defence in the first minute and putting in Blair Kinghorn for the opening score, which the winger converted. The domination continued for the first half-hour and more, as the tourists added two more tries: first, a penalty score when Horne was high-tackled with the line in sight, and then one by George Turner from a lineout drive – the ploy that had given the hooker a hat-trick a week earlier against Canada.
Two AJ MacGinty penalties had got the USA off the mark by that time, but the ominous thing for Scotland was the control the home stand-off was beginning to exert on open play. If the Eagles had committed too many errors in the opening stages, Scotland more than matched them as the game went on, and MacGinty excelled at putting them under pressure with some well-directed kicks.
While the Dublin-born stand-off had the subtlety, hooker Joe Taufete’e had the brute force, claiming the first of his two tries from short range not long before half-time. Another penalty by Kinghorn gave Scotland a 24-13 lead at the break, but that apparently secure lead was demolished in the third quarter as the home side racked up 17 unanswered points. First a bludgeoning run by Taufete’e left Scotland defenders trailing in his wake on the way to the try line, and then an error by Matt Fagerson allowed MacGinty to gather and put Hanco Germishuys through.
Scotland had plenty of time and possession in which to mount a comeback from six points down, but Mark Bennett spilled the ball when tackled as he crossed the line, and although Dougie Fife grabbed a lifeline with a last-gasp try, Kinghorn’s conversion attempt was wide.
You take any victory, of course, no matter how undeserved, but a win here might well have disguised Scotland’s many shortcomings. Notwithstanding the USA’s excellent morale and formidable physicality, this was a match that the tourists should have won. Their inability to do so was a failure of the imagination, and they need to rediscover a creative cutting edge this week.