GREGOR TOWNSEND and Greig Laidlaw were in agreement about the main reason for Scotland’s defeat by Ireland – a second-half performance which lacked the inspiration and energy of the first. Speaking at the press conference which followed the 22-13 defeat, both head coach and captain insisted that the home side had been well in the game at half-time – and Townsend, whose responsibilities include masterminding the attack, criticised himself rather than his players for the team’s inability to finish off some of their moves after the break.
“We probably should have scored one try more, and I’m frustrated that we gifted them a try, but I’m very happy with the way that we played in the first half,” he said. “Second half, the execution of our set piece plays to get us into our game and to put more pressure on Ireland just didn’t happen.
“I’m so proud of the players, with the way they played and the effort they put in. A game of rugby is a lot of things: it’s the defence battle, the contact battle, the kicking game and the pressure we put on Ireland’s kicks and what we do with kick-return ball. I thought we won those battles and our contact work against a very good defence who will look to hold you up in the tackle, rip the ball or compete the ball, was outstanding.
“Just that final piece, the execution off set-piece, which has been really good – that fell off the jigsaw today and that’s my fault. I’m the attack coach and we weren’t able to get those two or three phases, either to get in behind the defence or set up our attack shape, which was working well in the first half.”
Ireland made mistakes as well, and were probably just as fatigued as Scotland in the second have. But they had the possession and the ability to stretch their lead, and Laidlaw admitted that, by comparison, Scotland had conceded cheap scores while finding it harder to score themselves.
“We were in a good position at half-time, but our performance in the second half cost us the game through some of the errors,” the scrum-half said. “We couldn’t really build any pressure in the second half, because we just kept turning over possession.
“We gave Ireland a set-piece and they were able to exit their half. It’s always difficult when you’re trying to score from deeper.
“We were really confident at half-time. We felt like we were really on top of Ireland and causing them problems with our attack. We just couldn’t convert that into the second half and I think that’s what cost us the game in the end.”
There is now a fallow week in the Six Nations before Scotland begin to plan for the trip to France, and it may be a while before they learn if Stuart Hogg and Ryan Wilson will be able to be involved in Paris. Hogg had to go off with a shoulder injury in the first half after being sandwiched between two defenders, and back-row forward Wilson did not reappear for the second half after sustaining a knee injury.
“He’s sore, very sore,” Townsend said of the full-back. “He wanted to stay on but his shoulder was not right. We’ll see what will happen over the next few days.
“It was disappointing: he chipped ahead and got sandwiched between two players. These things happen quickly, but there was a collision there that forced him to fly over and land on the point of his shoulder. It was a big moment in the game. We conceded the try a minute after that and lost one of our best players.”
Onwards to France
The biggest challenge when facing the French these days tends to be dealing with the size of their pack, who will steamroller over you unless you get your defence spot on. But Stuart McInally, for one, is confident that Scotland can meet that challenge – not out of any blind optimism, but because his Edinburgh team have already taken on two similarly massive French sides in the Champions Cup this season and got the better of both.
Granted, Edinburgh lost to Montpellier in the first round of pool games, but even there they finished more strongly after getting off to a slow start. And they went on to beat three-time former champions Toulon home and away, before showing how much they have learned by beating Montpellier at BT Murrayfield to qualify for the quarter-finals.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge in France, similar [to Ireland] in terms of physicality,” the Scotland hooker said. “Big, heavy forwards. But we’ve played against Montpellier and Toulon this year, so we know what it’s like.
“I’ve taken great confidence from the Edinburgh games, going to Montpellier and competing well, then doing the same here. Toulon most recently, up against a big, big pack, we did it right. That gives me confidence.
“There certainly won’t be any fear of going over there. We know we need to win to keep our Championship hopes alive. So there won’t be any shortage of intensity.”
The match at the Stade de France will be a battle of wits as well as a physical confrontation, and McInally accepted that the Scotland squad have a lot of work to do over the next fortnight after being unable to play at their most inventive against the Irish, particularly in the second half. “A huge amount of effort went into the game, but we were too inaccurate in attack and Ireland defended really well.
“We were hammering their line just before half-time – that was key, the fact we didn’t get anything. I felt if we could have gone into half-time in a lead, we would have been in a better position.
“I was still very confident we could win if we executed our game plan in the second half, but errors crept in and we never got firing in attack, which is usually very reliable. We need to look at that before Paris in a couple of weeks.”