SCOTLAND were architects of their own demise at the Principality Stadium yesterday, although the TMO also had a hand in their 21-10 defeat to Wales, according to head coach Gregor Townsend. The team, however, should take confidence from the way they hung in there when the hosts threatened to run away with the game before half-time, and then dominated large periods of the second-half (although they didn’t quite manage trouble the scoreboard operator during that period).
“We will look at what we can do better first,” said the coach. “The two tries they scored, we will look at those as defensive errors – that is 14 points. We got over the try-line on two other occasions – that is 14 points there again. [There was] two other clear occasions if we had been more accurate we would have scored. We will have to improve those areas.
“We lost by 11. That was a game in which we had enough pressure, territory and opportunities to win.”
In the cold light of day, this was a fairly heartening performance in the circumstances. With so many leaders of the squad missing – most notably John Barclay, Greig Laidlaw, Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Zander Fagerson – the strength in depth at Townsend’s disposal was rigorously tested. And, on the whole, the players under the microscope got through it, and will be stronger for the experience.
That has not always been the case when fringe players have been given opportunities to prove themselves in central roles under Townsend (think Fiji in June 2017 and USA in June 2018). And remember, it is only nine months since that 34-7 capitulation in Cardiff in the opening game of last season’s Six Nations.
Stepping up to the challenge
Adam Hastings confirmed that the courage and self-belief he routinely shows at club level, and which was evident against Argentina during the summer, can stand the heat of playing the world’s third ranked team inside one of rugby’s most intimidating stadiums.
“He was much better in the second half,” reflected Townsend. “He got back his confidence and into the way he has been playing for his club. He put in some excellent kicks and got involved a lot. I don’t think he got involved enough in the first half – or was really pro-active enough there be it with a pass a kick or a run – but the more he settled at that level the better he got.”
Ali Price returned to the scene of the crime, after his central role in that Six Nations debacle, and while we perhaps want to see him challenge more around the fringes he didn’t get much front-foot ball in this match to do that. Generally, his sober performance at the base indicates that he is getting closer to striking the balance between his natural exuberance and playing the percentages.
The energy and tempo George Horne brought when he assumed the number nine role – enthusiastically supported by big brother Peter in the middle of the park – will also provide Townsend with encouragement as he looks ahead to Scotland’s next challenge against Fiji at Murrayfield this coming Saturday.
The game didn’t quite open up for Blair Kinghorn to stretch those long legs from full-back, but he was still Scotland’s top carrier with 68 metres, and he was assured in defence.
Missed tackles are costly
Alex Dunbar missed a few tackles – most notable being the one that let George North for Wales’ first try – but given how stop-start his playing time has been in recent seasons, Townsend will have been delighted to see the centre’s barrelling run in the first half, and general work-rate throughout the 80-minutes.
Townsend was, inevitably, asked about Huw Jones’ performance, and specifically his two missed tackles which led directly to Wales tries, and the coach didn’t try to sugar-coat the significance of those errors.
“He put his hands up to the players in the changing room straight away,” he said. “These were errors that were big mistakes in the game. I thought he attacked well but if you are defending at this level you have to put your tackles in. Especially when you have guys who are world class attackers, so Huw will put the work in after this and if he gets the opportunity again he will put these tackles in.”
It is not the first time that Jones’ defensive solidity has been cause for concern.
Up front, the line-out went well, while the scrum creaked but just about held up (apart from the lead-up to North’s try). The big work-ons for Danny Wilson, Scotland’s recently installed forwards coach, will be the separate but related issues of getting on the front foot and dominating the breakdown – where Scotland were out-muscled and under pressure in both attack and defence all afternoon.
Chasing the game
Six of the nine unanswered points conceded to the boot of Leigh Halfpenny in the first 22 minutes came from breakdown penalties, with Hamish Watson called for not releasing on the deck in the third minute, and Jonny Gray recklessly diving round the side just as the game moved into its second quarter.
WP Nel was also penalised during this period for holding on as Scotland tried to edge their way into the opposition’s half, which allowed Gareth Anscombe to pile the pressure back onto the visitors.
The net result of this was that Scotland were chasing the game from early on, which is tough going against a team of Wales’ calibre on their own patch.
Townsend stated afterwards that he accepted the TMO’s decision with the first of Scotland’s two disallowed tries, but regretted Gray’s impetuosity in having a second bite at it after being stopped just short in the 62nd minute.
“That obviously cost us,” he said. “We were a couple of inches short of the try-line and not only did we not get the try [but] we got a penalty against us. It is a decision making and learning experience. They used to call it white line fever, didn’t they? That initial movement has to be one movement and the ref and TMO got that one right, but it was very tough for us to take when we were an inch away and come away with a penalty against us.”
Eight minutes later, Peter Horne latched onto little brother George’s right-footed dink over the top into the in-goal area, but the fourth official ruled that the ball had been knocked on before being grounded. Townsend was adamant that score should have stood.
“I thought he did [touch it down],” the coach insited. “It is a hard one at the time but with his reaction and the ball being underneath his body, I did think it was going to be awarded, but obviously it wasn’t.
“Wales picked their strongest team full of excellent players. The crowd of 60,000 plus was loud, they are one of the best teams in the world. The experience we gained today, particularly with our younger players – such as Adam playing in a key decision-making position – should put us in good stead for the next few weeks and years,” concluded Townsend.