Scotland's New Zealand nearly men must start the Six Nations opener at Twickenham - Allan Massie

Did we let it slip or did the All Blacks take it away from us? I suppose lots of us have been mulling over that question all week, players and coaches among them. Probably the answer is a bit of both.
Scotland players line up to observe the Haka ahead of the Autumn Nations Series defeat to New Zealand. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)Scotland players line up to observe the Haka ahead of the Autumn Nations Series defeat to New Zealand. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Scotland players line up to observe the Haka ahead of the Autumn Nations Series defeat to New Zealand. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Jack Dempsey’s yellow card didn’t help of course, but the New Zealand comeback was already under way, powered in part by the fear of being the first All Blacks team to lose to Scotland. Dempsey’s attempt at a one-handed interception was doubtless rash, also however evidence of the pressure then being imposed on the defence. So it’s an open question.

What one can say with some assurance is that for almost an hour Scotland played as well as I remember a Scottish team playing against New Zealand or indeed any of the world’s top teams. The manner in which they put a horrifying start – 14 points down in the blink of an eye – behind them and took control of the game was mighty impressive. They were so good that even the natural anxiety, the fear that it could not last, was stilled. At half-time one didn’t even dwell on the thought that Jamie Ritchie was unluckily judged to have been guilty of a double movement when crossing the try line and so having his try disallowed. My impression, probably mistaken, was that he had never been held in the tackle and so any double movement was not unlawful.

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In retrospect one can say, with characteristically Scottish gloom, that bad decisions cost us a glorious victory, the turning point coming when the forwards repeatedly tried to force their way over the try-line and were then penalised – correctly – for not releasing in the tackle. With players like Finn Russell, Duhan van der Merwe, Darcy Graham and Stuart Hogg ready for the pass, surely this was a moment to trust the backs, just as Ali Price called for the ball and sent van der Merwe free when we beat France in Paris eighteen months ago. On the other hand I found myself after the game remembering how La Rochelle scored that late winning try against Leinster in this year’s Heineken Cup final. When repeated battering at the line works, we praise the forwards. When it doesn’t, one groans.

Argentina today will be just as tough, partly because Scotland may find it difficult to raise their game after last week’s disappointing end. Actually, Argentina are like us in their inconsistency, inspired one day, lacklustre the next. Their admirable victory at Twickenham was also rather like some of the wins Gregor Townsend’s teams have had against England – matches in which England dominated for long periods, with enough possession and territory to win a couple of games, and yet lost. Moreover these autumn internationals with games coming every week don’t often make for consistency.

Happily – at least I hope it is happily – there are no experimental changes in the Scotland team. Indeed, but for Hamish Watson’s concussion and Richie Gray’s suspension, it is likely that there would have been no changes from last week. Of course coaches are always rightly aware that it’s desirable to have a fair-sized pool of players with experience of the international game. Nevertheless, even in the professional era, it is still the case that a winning team is usually a settled team. Harking back to the amateur years no doubt irritates some, reasonably enough since so much is different now. Yet it’s fair to remark that in our most successful seasons – 1984, 1990 and 1999 – there were very few changes in the starting XVs, such changes as there were being involuntary, occasioned by injury. So I hope that the team that takes the field at Twickenham in the first round of the Six Nations will be pretty well identical with the one that came so close to beating New Zealand and will, if all goes well, have defeated Argentina today. It should be a good game. Even the weather seems to have relented – if the forecast is to be trusted. There was very little between the two teams when we toured Argentina in the summer – even though that was a Scotland team not quite at full strength. Of course it’s rare for any international team to have nobody out injured, but both today’s ones seem almost close to full-strength. Both have powerful and well-drilled forwards; both have fine running backs. It should be fun.



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