Six Nations: Scots' Plan A came off rails but no need for new track

In yesterday's paper I described Scotland's pitiful showing in Cardiff as 'shambolic from start to finish' which, upon reflection, wasn't accurate as they did finally put some phases together at the end and Peter Horne snuck through to dodge the '¨dreaded doughnut.
A dejected Scotland team leave the field at full-time after their 34-7 drubbing by Wales on Saturday. Picture: Getty.A dejected Scotland team leave the field at full-time after their 34-7 drubbing by Wales on Saturday. Picture: Getty.
A dejected Scotland team leave the field at full-time after their 34-7 drubbing by Wales on Saturday. Picture: Getty.

However, in a way, it was that period towards the end of a traumatic 80 minutes that the deflation really did start to hit home. Here we were again, the Scots gamely battling away, huffing and puffing for a scant 
consolation score.

The Welsh, who had exceeded even their bullish coach Warren Gatland’s pre-match 
confidence by outclassing their hyped opponents across the board, gave one last effort to keep the visiting scoreline on nought before finally relenting and 
letting their beleaguered guests have a morsel to take home with them.

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Scotland coach Gregor Townsend admitted that the players had failed to execute the game plan but, understandably, fell some way short of a public lambasting. Behind closed doors at the squad’s Oriam base at the start of this now crucial week ahead of Sunday’s visit of France, it is likely to have been a different story.

The much-vaunted high-octane blueprint for the Townsend era leading up to the 2019 World Cup came off the rails spectacularly in the Six Nations opener, with the thing most noticeably moving at tempo being the home points tally.

As awful as Saturday’s performance was it is hardly time to abandon all hope and throw the baby out with the bathwater, though, and replace Plan A with a limited conservative style which would be as futile as it was boring.

The key word in the aftermath was “accuracy” or the lack of it from the Scotland players. The successes of the summer and autumn may have come in what were effectively “friendlies” but Saturday’s grim collapse shouldn’t render them meaningless.

Rather it was a reminder, as if needed, of the difference between one-off Tests and championship rugby.

Townsend is well aware that he inherits a dreadful away record outside Rome in the tournament, although there have been a fair few horror shows in the Eternal City too, and it is a psychological barrier which will take some clearing.

What unfolded at the Principality Stadium at the weekend fits into a long-term pattern and there were parallels with last year’s 61-21 mauling at Twickenham.

It is here that for all the well deserved, and expected from Townsend, criticism heading the Scotland players’ way there must be an acceptance that, as with life, sometimes sport just goes wrong. Early misfortune ignites a chain reaction which becomes impossible to smother. We all have days when we think it would have been better not to have bothered getting out of bed.

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The self-inflicted aspect must not be glossed over but Scotland found themselves in a similar position to a cricket team who lose a couple of wickets for no runs in the first over of a Test match. Eighteen wickets and five days may remain in hand but “scoreboard pressure” exerts a psychological grip which can be impossible to shake.

What will have disappointed Townsend the most is the way, after having 15 minutes with his players in the dressing room at half-time and still just two scores down, the response was not a counter blast but an increase in sloppiness. The coach, going back to his Glasgow days, has always been prone to shuffling his pack, even during successful runs, and there are likely to be changes come Sunday. Greig Laidlawwould be a good bet to come in for Ali Price, who threw that early interception and had his worst day in a brief but stellar Scotland career. Ryan Wilson is likely to be promoted from the bench and the power and ball carrying of David Denton could also be called upon, while Sean Maitland is a ready-made replacement for the injured Byron McGuigan.

The new centre pairing of Huw Jones and Chris Harris misfired. If Alex Dunbar comes through his concussion tests, he will return to the No 12 jersey. If he doesn’t then Horne could well be recalled, with Jones reverting back to outside centre.

The focus this week will be attitude more than personnel, though, with a serious amount of lineout drills you would imagine after that particular set-piece fell apart at the weekend. It also becomes more and more apparent that when stand-off Finn Russell has a bad game, so does Scotland. He is still young at 25 but, with 33 caps now to his name, it is time to realise that free and easy can only take you so far at the highest level. There is a time and place for the maverick play.

His natural instincts must be encouraged and it is these which have so often seen him repay howlers with brilliance, both in-game and from match to match. He won’t want to throw in another stinker against the country he will be living and playing in next season.

Amidst the gloom and the natural urge to forget the whole sorry episode, it is worth sparing a thought for 21-year-old prop Murray McCallum, for whom Saturday will always hold a special place in his heart as he came off the bench to win his first cap.

“It was disappointing the way the result went. It wasn’t exactly how we wanted to start the championship. But I was delighted to get out there and start hopefully a long career of international performances,” he said. “It’s what you’ve dreamt of since you were a little boy. It’s exactly how I’d imagined it, brilliant. Almost mindboggling looking around and seeing all that. It was an experience.”

Sometimes it takes the exuberance 
of youth to remind us that hope springs eternal.