A disappointment? Definitely.
Frustrating? For sure.
But, from a Scottish point of view, there was a reassuring side all the same to Saturday’s defeat by Ireland. Namely, that while some obvious errors were there for all to see, no hitherto undiscovered defects of any real magnitude were exposed.
The world rankings do not lie: Ireland are second and Scotland are seventh and that gap was reflected in the greater precision with which the visitors went about their task. In that context, the 13-22 defeat has to be seen as a fair statement of where we stand.
Joe Schmidt’s squad are still more mature and systematically efficient than Gregor Townsend’s, as they showed in the relentless fashion with which they kept probing for — and finding — a soft edge to the Scots’ defence close to the breakdown, but this was not the clinical dissection of 2015, when Vern Cotter’s Scotland were swept aside by 30 points at Murrayfield. Nor was it the 20-point defeat at the Aviva a year ago, when, for all that Scotland played some positive stuff, Ireland were in control for a great deal of the game.
Ireland deserved to win on Saturday, but it would hardly have been a travesty if the home team had picked up a losing bonus point. In other words, the gap is narrowing.
Some people might point to the fact that Scotland won by five the last time the teams met at Murrayfield and suggest that it shows otherwise, but you cannot read too much into a single result. That game in 2017, the first in Cotter’s last Six Nations campaign, proved that this Scottish team are capable of beating Ireland, so in that sense it remains a benchmark for them as they look ahead to the World Cup. But a lot has changed since then on both sides, with Scotland having become noticeably more dynamic in attack under Townsend.
Saturday’s game was a pressurised affair, and some of the things that went wrong in it were uncharacteristic. Against lesser opponents, would Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland have been rushed into the misunderstanding that led to Conor Murray’s try? Possibly not. Add in the fact that Stuart Hogg had just been injured so the defence had had little or no time to reorganise, and that mix-up becomes more understandable.
Of course such comic incidents should not happen at Test level, just as Blair Kinghorn should not spill a simple catch. But you would hardly write off the substitute or the wingers because of those errors. Instead, you simply have to conclude that, when placed under the fiercest scrutiny, Scotland sometimes fall short.
They remain a work in progress, but progress there has undeniably been during Townsend’s 21 months in charge. The five tries scored against Italy (opponents who have often been able to drag Scotland down to their own level) were proof of that, even if by the same token the three late tries they conceded were a demonstration of their enduring frailties.
Anyway, after that 33-20 win over the Italians and Saturday’s loss, Scotland travel to Paris in round three knowing that they need a result against France if they are to remain in contention for the title. Townsend and his coaching team will do a lot of homework on the French over this fallow week, but a lot of his players, the Edinburgh contingent in particular, have already done a lot of that this season.
The gargantuan French pack is expected to be the major problem for the Scots, and Edinburgh have confronted the Champions Cup version of that problem four times this season. On their first outing, away to Montpellier, they took a time to get up to speed, but they went on to beat Toulon home and away before winning the return against Montpellier to qualify for the quarter-finals. Even allowing for the fact that Test rugby is a significant step up in intensity from European club competition, those performances can only be helpful to Scotland.
So much for 12 days’ time. What about seven months, when Scotland and Ireland next meet in their opening pool game at the Rugby World Cup?
“I was speaking to [Ireland defence coach] Andy Farrell before the game and we both said Yokohama feels like another world,” Townsend said on Saturday evening. “We’ve got a pre-season, a World Cup camp to get through. It’s the first game of the World Cup, so how well you do in your camp, and how well you get your plays in place in those friendlies, will have more relevance than this game.”
But will seven months be enough to close the gap on Ireland? Townsend is confident that his team are improving, yet he knows they are not doing so in isolation. You therefore suspect that Scotland need to find an extra spark of inspiration from somewhere or someone between now and September. If not, another narrow defeat is the most probable outcome. Which would be disappointing, and frustrating, and this time definitely not reassuring.