GREIG TONKS ruefully summed up a record-equalling Scotland defeat by Ireland, 40-10 at BT Murrayfield, saying: “These past few (Six Nations) weeks have been very close but today we let ourselves down.”
Of the established rugby nations Ireland are the only one Scotland have beaten more often than they have lost against which can only add hurt to the substitute-utility back’s typically honest assessment. But where did this one go wrong in letting the Irish in to claim the title on points differential from England?
“There were times where we let go of the ball too easily which is pretty much the gist of what the coaches have told us,” said Tonks: “At the moment we are too eager to score every time we have the ball, we’re not quite patient enough. We need to keep hold of the ball and wear teams down.
“(Coach) Vern Cotter talked about building step by step and getting into the game. We are building a few stages and then letting it go by losing ball, knock-ons, poor kicks... Ireland held the ball and wore us down, broke through and scored tries off the back of it.”
Tonks insisted there was plenty from a campaign in which he took his cap tally to four.
“Everything is new as this was my first Six Nations and it is good to have had a taste of what top-flight rugby is about and one of the lessons is you have to learn how to cope under pressure.
“My experience is that everything has been so clinical and small mistakes count so much in this competition. Everything you do has got to be accurate.”
Scotland were certainly fortunate to have call on a player who was able to step in at centre for the second consecutive Test having played full back or stand-off for an Edinburgh side with whom he extended his contract by two years in midweek.
“Edinburgh have some big games coming up so I want to get back to winning ways quickly and also use them to be part of a successful Scotland team. I’ve been coming on when we have been chasing the game but I’ve enjoyed being involved,” he said.
Giving backing to coach Cotter whose first championship has ended with not just a wooden spoon but a whitewash, Tonks said: “Vern is a very experienced and knows what he is talking about. He knows how to help us and the boys are confident we can improve.”
Nevertheless, Scotland have now posted a solitary Championship win in 12 outings. Compounding their mediocrity is the fact that they have now equalled the depressing run of six home games in the competition without a win which last occurred from 1967-70.
So, it is easy to see why all that talk of “progress” from those in high places has a hollow ring.
One disgruntled supporter in a crowd of 67,144 at least captured the reality of the situation when he climbed steps to within yards of the glass fronted home coaching box and yelled “a disgrace, a joke.”
At least someone had seen through the spin and bluster that has been consistently spouted including the target of a World Cup win this Autumn.
Fact: this result not only equalled the worst ever loss to Ireland but if the visitors hadn’t missed three kickable penalties then the record books would have been well and truly up-dated.
Alright, Stuart Hogg dropped the ball when aiming to score a try over the Irish line with three minutes remaining but that was merely a microcosm of the whole campaign and it was regretful that it happened to a player who was perhaps the sole Scot to emerge on Saturday with reputation enhanced.
Progress? You have to be kidding and there was more than a hint of irony in the Scots starting a second half in which they were to fail to register a single point for the fifth time in ten Championship fixtures playing towards a pitchside advertisement for that admirable charity, “The Samaritans”.
Turning round 10-20 adrift the Scots once again had an appalling third quarter with 13 points conceded. Around this time, too, discipline began to disintegrate amidst a welter of penalties and a technical yellow card for Geoff Cross who had come on after 11 minutes for Euan Murray (broken nose).
Even by Cross’s early arrival Scotland had seen possession lost in contact twice and, on rare occasions they did threaten, the approach was often predictable and ponderous.
To be brutal, some players struggled badly.
Inability to react under pressure first surfaced in 24 minutes when Sean O’Brien collected a throw at a line-out tail 20 metres out and brushed aside Dougie Fife’s tackle to add to a fourth-minute try by Paul O’Connell.
When Scotland did trouble the scoreboard with Fin Russell’s first professional try in 36 outings including nine caps and converted by Laidlaw who’d earlier kicked a penalty, another old failing surfaced. Rather than consolidate, the Scots immediately infringed allowing Johnny Sexton to slot the penalty. Whatever was said at the interval failed to inspire as Jonny Gray re-entered the action with a knock-on and soon it was one-way traffic.
Jared Payne crashed over under the posts and with Cotter flooding the field with early subs that was tantamount to throwing in the towel. Some changes were enforced, though, and a fledgling centre combination of Tim Visser and Tonks were in position by the time O’Brien claimed his try brace again illustrating lack of meaningful depth.
The final whistle brought merciful relief not just from this one-sided game but from an entire Six Nations series where selections also have to be seriously questioned. Where were John Barclay and Kelly Brown? If Hamish Watson and Ben Toolis were good enough for one subbing shift why not two?
Maybe the impending influx of “Scots” qualified on residency – Edinburgh pair Willem Petrus Nel and Cornell du Preez are possibles for this Autumn’s World Cup as is a third South African in Glasgow’s Josh Strauss – will give some early impetus?
Others could be parachuted in looking further ahead and with respect to the individuals involved these are desperate measures which rarely give lasting benefits in sending out entirely the wrong signals to those who have toiled through the ranks for their holy grail of a prized jersey.
A revolution in Scottish rugby is long overdue but will only come with a clubs’ breakaway from a governing body reluctant to concede any control in return for vitally-needed outside investment.
Yes, the same governing body who were vehemently opposed to professional rugby then, when it suited, declared themselves the very chaps to run it.
Saturday was just the latest step on the downward spiral stemming from the dawn of the era. As for the traditional but subservient clubs doing their duty, though, don’t hold your breath ...
Scotland: Try: Russell. Conversion: Laidlaw. Penalty: Laidlaw.
Ireland: Tries: O’Brien (2), O’Connell, Payne. Conversions: Sexton (3), Madigan. Penalties: Sexton (4)
Scotland: S Hogg; D Fife, M Bennett (T Visser 71), M Scott (G Tonks 70), T Seymour; F Russell, G Laidlaw (captain) (Hidalgo-Clyne 56); R Grant (A Dickinson 31), R Ford (F Brown 53), E Murray (G Cross 11); J Hamilton (T Swinson 53), J Gray; A Ashe (R Harley 57), D Denton, B Cowan.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 71), C Murray (E Reddan 80); C Healy (J McGRath 53), R Best (S Cronin 61), M Ross (M Moore 46); D Toner (I Henderson 61), P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, J Heaslip, S O’Brien (J Murphy 73).
Referee: J Garces (France)