Scotland have only themselves to blame after suffering an agonising last-gasp 19-17 defeat to France at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Watching from the Murrayfield stands as Scotland squandered a golden opportunity for a rare win over France was not unlike sitting through an awful, low-budget Rocky Balboa spoof. The Scots, our heroes, furiously pounded away at the bad guys with jab after bruising jab for eleven rounds. They were sent reeling to the canvas as Yoann Huget plucked Duncan Weir's pass from the Edinburgh sky and raced in from eighty metres. But they recovered; they regrouped. True to form, the Italian Stallion was alive and kicking, and so were his supporters.
Then, with the seconds counting down and the bell about to ring, Scotland were sucker-punched. Knocked out cold. And the most galling part of it all? It was not through the skill of the opposition that the bout was lost, rather the foolishness with which the hosts left themselves open to a late, late hammer-blow. In effect, they stood in the ring, arms behind their back, singing the Mekons' "Come and Have a Go if You Think You're Hard Enough". Jean-Marc Doussain was more than happy to oblige.
After this sort of game, the sympathetic semi-plaudits flow from all corners. It's a familiar routine, kicked off by the Murrayfield stadium announcer who must by now have his script perfected after so many valiant defeats. Let's hear it for the brave souls who came so close to a famous triumph. Oh, Scotland, you played so well; you showed such heart; what rotten luck. You'll get 'em next time, boys.
It shouldn't be so. Gushing does no good here. Praise is justified, sure, and on several fronts, but make no mistake about it: Scotland threw this one away. They lost their nerve when the chips were down and suddenly they found themselves in the driving seat of a big game. And if Scott Johnson's men are ever to shed what feels like an eternal "gallant losers" tag, then these are the matches that must be put away.
For this French side was there for the taking. Missing several key players, Philippe Saint-André's team were listless and lacking inspiration for much of the contest. Despite the odd flash of flair from Huget and Brice Dulin, France looked short of ideas and stimulus. Their error count rose in tandem with Scotland's confidence. The hosts had disrupted their lineout, defended reasonably well, and kept them try-less while scoring two of their own.
So what went wrong? Weir's telegraphed floating miss-pass was a game-changer. The hero in Rome, the young pivot chose the wrong option with a third try an apparent certainty. Instead of celebrating to the tune of a twelve-point lead, the Scots were left regrouping under their own posts, now trailing by two.
And while they showed great resolve in regaining the impetus as well as the advantage on the scoreboard, it is unlikely France would have recovered had Weir chosen more wisely. That lack of execution, that loss of composure, is a seemingly systemic Scottish trait. The fly-half's brilliant winning drop-goal a fortnight ago was an exception to the rule that Scotland do not perform skills well nor take their opportunities when the pressure is on.
Johnson reserved his traditional post-match metaphorical mischief for his side's penalty count, which rose faster than most Scots' blood pressure as Chris Pollock blew up for the decisive offence in the final minute. It's safe to say the Kiwi will not be in receipt of a Christmas card from the coach this year after the official pinged Scotland thirteen times on Saturday.
Pollock, as with most of his colleagues from south of the Equator, favours the attacking side at the breakdown. He wants quick ball and a clean rucking contest. He is renowned for his stringency on tacklers who fail to release the player they have felled. Over and over again the Scots were pulled up for this offence. In fact, it was Tim Swinson who so infringed in the final minute, and allowed Doussain to notch the winning penalty.
This chronic indiscipline is hugely damaging, and it is not a recent development: in four Six Nations games, the Scots have racked up fifty-one infringements by my count.
Johnson's argument that there are large disparities in the law interpretations of different officials is a valid one. There is a discernible north-south gap, and it must be narrowed as far as possible. But one needn't have possessed the credentials of an international coach to know how Pollock would officiate the breakdown. And the New Zealander was consistent as well as correct for the most part. That Scotland failed either to prepare or adapt to his style, and infringed so blatantly and so frequently for such a prolonged period went a long way to deciding the outcome of the game.
Now, while all this sounds very doom-and-gloom after a positive performance, the manner of defeat is such that we shouldn't leap to mollycoddle a group of players who know where they went wrong. The Scots did plenty good things: their lineout worked well, they attacked with penetration, their kicking from hand was generally good, they won fourteen turnovers and the scrum just about held its own late on despite Johnson's decision not to substitute either of his flagging props.
It remains to be seen whether Scotland can mature enough as a team to become ruthless in situations like these. But they've been here before. They've felt this hurt. The only difference this time is that rather than cursing the one that got away, Scotland are ruing the match they threw away.
By Jamie Lyall