The debate has been raging among Scotland rugby supporters all weekend about whether this third successive championship defeat provided cause for optimism or was more confirmation of a worrying regression.
A bizarre match saw the Scots hit and hit again with another barrage of unwanted injuries and yet they played their best rugby on Saturday after that and with players out of position. Weak defence in the first half saw Grand Slam-chasing Wales breeze to a 15-6 lead, which could have been more, but the Scots responded rousingly in the second.
It was still not enough though. The litany of injuries clouds the debate but there is also a fair argument that the steady upturn that started under Vern Cotter in the 2015 World Cup and has carried on under Gregor Townsend, with a few significant blips along the way, has taken a step or two backwards at the start of this World Cup year.
There were never any illusions at the start of this year’s championship that Scotland remained a bit behind the other Home Nations powerhouses of Ireland, Wales and England. The world rankings were solid proof.
However, the fact the Irish and Welsh were coming to what had become a BT Murrayfield fortress going back to the 2016 tournament, during which both had been beaten during Cotter’s last championship, and the tantalising prospect that turmoil in France could bring a first win in Paris for 20 years, fuelled a quiet confidence.
That has now given way to anxiety about a foreboding trip to Twickenham (36 years and counting as if anyone needs reminded) and the prospect of ending with just a win over Italy to the Scots’ name.
Josh Adams and Jonathan Davies took advantage of sloppy Scottish defending to make coach Wales coach Warren Gatland’s 11th win in 11 attempts against the Scots seem in the bag at half-time after a particularly poor second quarter from the home side, albeit in the midst of injuries and reorganising.
The Scots fired back and lifted the stadium with a magnificent try as Finn Russell, Byron McGuigan and Adam Hastings combined like quicksilver to put the excellent Darcy Graham in for a try on his first start and home debut.
Possession was dominated, there was an astonishing cameo off the bench from ‘pinball wizard’ Hamish Watson, left, but the Welsh defended firmly and the Scots struggled to conjure the kind of incisiveness that brought the Graham score.
“The main purpose of an attack is to score tries,” admitted coach Townsend. “There probably would have been points out there because we decided to kick to the corners on a few occasions when Wales were giving away penalties. That was partly to do with the wind and where we were winning penalties. Taking those three points is another method of getting on the scoreboard but we decided against that [in the second half].
“I felt at times that we had certainly improved from the Ireland game in terms of the pressure and the breaks we were getting in that area, but it’s something that’s a continual work-on for us. We know that teams that convert the opportunities when they have that pressure are more likely to win games.”
Townsend took a nuanced view on the much talked about elusiveness of “an 80-minute performance” after the damage of a poor 20 minutes before the break ultimately lost them the game.
“We’re closer today,” he said. “The game has to be about attack and defence, and for a period in the second quarter we didn’t defend as well as we had at other stages of the game. In those other stages we mainly had the ball and I thought the decisions the players made, and their ball-carrying was outstanding at times. Wales have an exceptional defence, probably the best defence in the world, so to see the way our players took on that defence and got success from it is encouraging for us”
Facing England at a venue where Scotland shipped 60 points on their previous visit and Too Shy by Kajagoogoo was No 1 on the Hit Parade when they last won at the damned place brings a different notion of what an 80-minute performance would constitute. Eddie Jones’s men could have a shot at the title at Twickenham depending on earlier events in Cardiff and are smarting from that convincing defeat they suffered in Edinburgh last February.
“The opposition are always going to have a period when they’re in control of things and have their momentum, especially when we’re playing teams ranked in the top two, three and four in the world,” said Townsend. “It’s about being able to handle those moments and not concede points. England are bound to have some times when they are strong. We did feel that was much closer to the rugby we aspire to play, and probably our best performance of the season, so there are positives to build on. We know we’re going to have to play very well to win next week, with new players coming into the group if there are injuries.”