IRELAND are the new Six Nations champions with a round of fixtures to spare, and can win a third Grand Slam in their history – after 1948 and 2009 – by beating England at Twickenham next week. Scotland go to Italy with a chance of coming second.
That status, Ireland the achievers and Scotland the hopeful travellers, is one way of expressing the difference between the teams. Another was made by Gregor Townsend after his team’s 28-8 defeat in Dublin.
“We are three or four years behind Ireland in terms of what they’ve done and achieved in their experiences over the last few years,” Scotland’s head coach said. “We need to make sure that when we have these experiences that are tough, it goes into our work to improve. We play Ireland next year in the Six Nations and we will play them in 18 months at the World Cup and we need to make sure we are a better team when we play them.”
International 10 March 2018
It was clear from that reference to the 2019 World Cup that Townsend is not content with working on an elongated timescale; that being those three or four years behind Ireland is a reference to the current difference between the teams, not to how long the coach expects it will take to bridge the gap. Instead, his reasoning is that Ireland are a mature group, at or near their peak.
Scotland, by contrast, are underdeveloped as a squad, in the sense that key members of the group have not had that many games together. Vital performers such as Huw Jones are still in their infancy as practitioners of Test-match rugby, so moments of aberration, if not complete off days, are to be expected.
Townsend would never say that the missed chances in this game did not matter, but the stage of his team’s evolution explains why, as ever, he was sparing in his criticism and preferred to accentuate the positive elements of their display. “Our basic skills were pretty good in a number of areas, our tackling was outstanding and our contact work when we had the ball was outstanding,” he insisted. “We created those opportunities and it was basic passing skills which caused a couple of missed opportunities.
“We all make errors. We certainly played some outstanding rugby at times – we caused a very good side problems through the set-piece and defence and by what we did in attack.
“It’s disappointing we’re not sitting here with one, two or even three more tries on the scoreboard. it would have made for a very interesting game going into the last ten minutes.
“We’re proud of how the players played, but frustrated that it didn’t lead to either a closer game or even a victory. The first job is to cause the opposition problems when they usually dictate their possession and we did that. We knew every ruck would be tough for them and it was.
“We turned Ireland over a number of times and in the scrum we got stronger and stronger. Our lineout was very good, so that was pleasing.
“Creating opportunities is the first part and finishing them off is the second part when you have the ball. We did create a number of opportunities and the more you are in those positions, the more it becomes second nature for our players to score.
“That was night and day compared to Cardiff. It was a team performance right from the start. It was committed, focused and we took the game to the opposition right to the end.
“It was a shame that Tim Swinson didn’t get a try at the end when he was stretching over. The players stuck to their task and kept going at Ireland and that was great to see.”
Scotland may have scored just one more point than they did in that dismal defeat by Wales last night, but Greig Laidlaw, like Townsend, insisted that there was still a lot to be pleased with, as well as frustrated by, in their performance. Having pointed out that small margins of error made a big difference, however, the scrum-half also accepted were guilty of glaring failings that need to be ironed out before they can really regard themselves as being on a level footing with the new Six Nations champions.
BT Premiership 10 March 2018
“It didn’t feel like a 20-point game,” Laidlaw said after the home team’s 28-8 victory in the Aviva Stadium. “That’s what the scoreboard says, which is frustrating. We certainly didn’t feel there was that much in the game, and the Irish boys are pretty humble and didn’t think so either.”
“It’s frustrating. A couple of big moments in the game. In the first half there were a couple of errors by us. We didn’t help ourselves.
“We created a lot of opportunities and we’re disappointed not to take them and put Ireland under more pressure. Credit to Ireland, when they had opportunities they took them.”
If the score was reminiscent of the 34-7 loss in Cardiff which began Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, Laidlaw insisted that this display, while painfully flawed, was a cut above that performance. In other words, he did not see this result as a complete step back after the home wins against France and England.
“Apart from Wales, where we were massively disappointed with the performance, parts of the performance were there today that were there against France and England,” he added. “It’s important now we go forward and perform again in a week.
“You could see we were more composed in a lot of things, but we have some work to do. This team is still young and in its infancy in the way it’s playing. So we understand we’re putting teams under massive pressure at points in the game, but understand our skill sets must be high to not make mistakes and make our opportunities count.
“We have to improve our discipline. We gave Ireland penalties when they wanted penalties. That was disappointing. We have to understand discipline is hugely important at this level. That proved costly today.
“They were breathing pretty hard at half-time. Maybe in the past that game would have got away from us, but it didn’t today. We were in it until the death.”
They would have been closer at the death but for those expensive mistakes by players such as Huw Jones and Peter Horne, yet Laidlaw agreed with Townsend there would be no recriminations. “We win and lose as a team. The team is made up of individuals and nobody goes out there to make mistakes. Sometimes it just happens and you accept it and you move on and do the next job.
“They’re obviously disappointed with the way things have turned out. They’re pretty cut up about it. We’re never going to get that game back. We’ll go away and dissect the performance and take positives, because we played some brilliant rugby at times and caused Ireland a lot of problems at times.”