Familiar Scottish woes resurface

Date published: February 2 2014

Recurrent problems reared their heads for Scott Johnson's Scotland during their 28-6 defeat to Ireland in Dublin on Sunday.

Recurrent problems reared their heads for Scott Johnson's Scotland during their 28-6 defeat to Ireland in Dublin on Sunday.

To say Scotland have been here before is akin to commenting on an alcoholic's frequent presence in the booze aisle of his local supermarket. And there will be plenty of Scottish fans in need of a stiff drink after watching their side capitulate so readily in Dublin; falling foul of such long-standing issues.

The eventual 28-6 scoreline was a fair reflection of how, after an even first half, the visitors lost heart and fell away just as the home side cranked up the tempo. It was a touch reminiscent of the Scots' 28-0 loss to the Springboks back in November; but then again, it was a touch reminiscent of plenty Scotland performances throughout the past few years.

Head coach Johnson allegedly had his sights trained on a more expansive game-plan. Like many of the Australian's remarks, this was taken with a handful rather than a pinch of salt, given the barrage of straight-running ball-carriers he had selected.

His side did try and move the ball, and their early endeavour with possession created several attacking opportunities – not that the boys in blue took note. Perhaps afraid to give it some extra air, perhaps prone to caution and security in the Aviva cauldron; overlaps and mismatches were ignored or squandered. With team-mates in space out wide, Scotland again and again opted for the safety blanket of trundling forwards or fruitless inside balls in an attempt to cross the gain line.

Despite Johnson's penchant for quirky clichés, the old adage about “playing what's in front of you” had obviously slipped through his net. The words “execution” and “ruthlessness” are oft trotted out in the wake of such offensive navy blue-clad impotency; but the painful truth is that Scotland only looked like crossing the whitewash once, when Dave Denton was shackled and shoved into touch at the corner flag. This point came midway through the first half; they failed to seriously test the Irish rear-guard thereafter.

So with penetration, verve and attack off the table, it was down to Scotland's defence to win the day. Initially, the signs were encouraging, as the visitors' pack caused Ireland problems at the ruck and maul.

But they switched off to allow Jonny Sexton to waltz over the gain line and break some forty metres downfield in the build-up to the first try. Arguably a case of “heads already in the dressing room” as half-time approached, but the Irish were in no mood to repeat their profligacy of a year ago. When they created (or were given) chances, they took them. They were clinical, Scotland were not.

Tries two and three had a measure of inevitability about them, but were nonetheless embarrassingly easy for the hosts. The apparent lack of fight and determination as the Ireland eight stormed their way over the line, and Rob Kearney swatted aside flailing forwards was just as disappointing as the concessions themselves.

The set-piece made for sore Scottish viewing too. The visitors were always likely to struggle up front without Euan Murray, and Ireland duly bested their scrummage. Ross Ford's non-hooking and repeated failure to hit his man in the lineout has gone from a niggling gripe to a cancer crippling Scotland's ability to retain possession – they lost exactly one-third of the scrums and lineouts on their own ball. It may be unfair to attribute all the failings to the Kelso powerhouse (replacement Pat MacArthur was also wayward with a throw or two), but it goes to show the nation's lack of front-row depth that in a time of World Cup preparation and squad expansion he has not once been dropped.

As the points were slowly racked up, the momentum swung inexorably in favour of the Irishmen. The pace of the game quickened, and Scotland gradually became less competitive at the breakdown, and made more errors with the ball. Johnson's back-row selection had been widely criticised, and it was telling that his side finished with three number eights in the loose forwards; none of Ryan Wilson, Johnnie Beattie or Dave Denton were likely to snaffle possession and win turnovers.

Of course, wins on Irish soil are acknowledged hens' teeth for the Scots. Their only victory on the Emerald Isle since 1998 came four years ago in the cavernous Croke Park arena; a Dan Parks-inspired 23-20 triumph halting the hosts' Triple Crown ambitions.

This was set to prove a sizeable task for a side blighted by these perennial ills, and sprinkled with such imprecision and Test-match naivety. But now Johnson's men must pick up the pieces and regroup – drastic improvements are required if they are to overcome another barren run of results against an England team licking their wounds.

By Jamie Lyall