Scotland are improving but Ireland defeat was wearily familiar

One match, many different views. Stuart Hogg believes Scotland are “on the right track to achieving something special”. Gregor Townsend says the side is “a work in progress” while former Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan thinks the Scots “have some deluded notion that they are better than they are”.

Ireland flanker CJ Stander gets the jump on Scotland lock Jonny Gray during the Autumn Nations Cup third-place play-off at the Aviva Stadium.
Ireland flanker CJ Stander gets the jump on Scotland lock Jonny Gray during the Autumn Nations Cup third-place play-off at the Aviva Stadium.

The bald facts are that Townsend’s team lost 31-16 to extend Scotland’s losing run in Dublin to seven matches spread across ten-and-half years.

The Scots have won just once in Ireland since 2000, a grim record that they won’t have a chance to rectify until the 2022 Six Nations.

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Hopes that the recent win in Wales would help cure Scotland of their travel sickness proved unfounded. And yet, for the first 31 minutes of Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup match the visitors looked the most likely.

Scotland captain Stuart Hogg looks to chip past Ireland's Hugo Keenan. Picture: Brian Lawless/Getty Images

Hogg was running free, finally unleashed after an autumn spent muzzled to a kicking game. Duhan van der Merwe’s muscular forays were causing Ireland problems and Duncan Taylor’s neat prompting from midfield suggested the Scots could unlock the home defence.

The manner in which the match swung away from Scotland following Taylor’s yellow card will be a cause for concern for Townsend.

Ireland scored three tries between the 38th and 50th minute to tear the game from Scotland’s grasp

“All week we focused on being physical at the breakdown, speed to the breakdown,” said Ali Price, the visitors’ scrum-half.

Keith Earls goes over to score Ireland's breakthrough try two minutes before half-time. The winger added a second after the interval. Picture: Brian Lawless/Getty Images

“An area where we’d struggled in the February Six Nations game, especially in attack, was Ireland’s speed over the ball. In the first half, we matched that. Our ball carriers were carrying hard, our speed to support the carrier was good – and we were able to play, force penalties, build a score.

“Test matches are won and lost on swings in small time periods of games. That can win you or lose you the match.

“Coming out for the second half, we had been the better team for the first period. But poor discipline allowed Ireland to get good field position for the first five or ten minutes of that second half. And they came away with points, which is something you can’t afford to happen.

“Before you know it, you’re 14 points down and that’s hard to chase.”

Scotland were leading 9-3 when Taylor was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on as he tried to stop Bundee Aki. Johnny Sexton kicked the resultant penalty and then created the crucial first try for Keith Earls with a delightfully judged kick to the corner which saw Darcy Graham outjumped by Robbie Henshaw. Ireland, who’d been second best for 80 per cent of the first half, suddenly found themselves going in at the interval 11-9 ahead.

Early second-half tries from Cian Healy and Earls again left the Scots with a mountain to climb and as Scotland were chasing the game the penalty count grew, leaving Townsend to rue his side’s lack of discipline. Price was acutely aware of the visitors’ shortcomings.

“I’ve mentioned before about trying not to compound error on error, penalty upon penalty,” said the Glasgow man. “When we started the second half, we did exactly that. They had the ball, they were suddenly winning all the collisions.

“We fronted up, still. I still think that we got into our defensive sets and fronted up. But it’s just a matter of time, almost, when you’re under that amount of pressure.

“Against a good side who are going to keep the ball, it’s inevitable that they’ll come away with points.”

Van der Merwe got the try his performance deserved but Ireland stretched away again in the final 15 minutes with a pair of penalties from replacement stand-off Ross Byrne.

The defeat consigned Scotland to a fourth-place finish in the Nations Cup and brought down the curtain on a disrupted 2020 in which they won five of nine Test matches.

The defeats came in pairs at the beginning and end of the year, while the run of victories was their best statistically since 1996.

Finn Russell played a sum total of 30 minutes across the nine games and it is undeniable that his creativity was missed. Jaco van der Walt had a decent match in Dublin, kicking three penalties and a conversion, but he was a debutant stand-off playing against a cap centurion.

All being well, Russell will return for the Six Nations but questions also linger over Scotland’s physicality. Townsend dismissed the notion that his pack had been bullied but the second half played out in a wearily familiar fashion for the visitors.

So the year ended how it began, with defeat in Dublin, but there were enough positives to suggest a degree of progress. The Six Nations win in Wales was a highlight, as was the home success over France which ultimately denied the team of the year a Grand Slam.

Price feels Scotland are in a better place now than they were after the 2019 World Cup where they lost to Ireland (again) and Japan and failed to qualify from their pool.

“We are in a completely different place to when the team came back from Japan,” he said.

“I think we’ve played nine Tests this year and, bar this one, we’ve been within a score of every result – win or lose.

“I think that shows massive character because we’ve come up against two or three of the best teams in the world, who are in the northern hemisphere. We’ve matched those teams and, on our day, that’s what we’re capable of.

“I think the way we’ve finished, the second half just gone, yeah it’s disappointing. But I think if you look at the big picture, look at how we’ve gone through the course of these nine games to get to where we are, we’re definitely in a better place than we were this time last year.”

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