Donald Walker on Scotland v Ireland
Scottish Rugby's new independent commentator Donald Walker reflects on Scotland’s opening fixture, the reaction to it and the challenges that lie ahead.
Donald Walker is former Deputy Editor and Sports Editor of the Scotsman and in 21 years he worked on five Rugby World Cups.
As anguish took a grip and supporters vented their frustration after Scotland’s defeat to Ireland at the Rugby World Cup last weekend, a friend remarked to me: ‘I can’t remember the last time Scotland failed to score a try.’
There wasn’t much satisfaction to be taken from reminding him that it is only five weeks since Scotland fired a blank in Nice, with a dispiriting and tryless 32-3 defeat to France. Tom English, the BBC journalist, sounded the alarm that day but also stated – bravely, in his line of work - that despite the 29-point defeat, Scotland were likely to beat France in the return fixture at BT Murrayfield a week later.
It was a bold prediction, but what Tom was underlining was the significance of the defeat with the Rugby World Cup looming; that even a win at BT Murrayfield could not ease concerns about a vulnerability that had been exposed in Nice. He was right on both fronts.
By the time the much-anticipated match with Ireland kicked off, many had long since forgotten the reversal in France. This week’s aftermath has confirmed that we remain strong on recriminations, but can be poor on perspective.
There is no denial that the defeat against Ireland was unsatisfactory, and must be improved upon significantly. The players themselves have admitted as much. But while we might regret the performance, it is difficult to be upset about the fact that Scotland did not win. While any team must always try to win every game, there should have been no realistic expectation among supporters that Scotland, who finished second bottom of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations championship with just one win – at home to Italy - would inflict defeat on the team ranked number one in the world. To do so would have been to cause a major upset.
And at the Rugby World Cup, Scotland are still waiting for that moment to happen.
The tournament’s history is peppered with glorious victories against the odds, such as Japan’s thrilling victory over South Africa in 2015, France running the All Blacks ragged in 1991, and Ireland’s great win against Australia in 2011, Fiji’s incredible 38-34 win over Wales in 2007, and in the same year, Argentina’s 17-12 victory over hosts France.
For Scotland, the tournament has thrown up few surprises since its inaugural hosting in 1987. It could be argued that Scotland’s very first Rugby World Cup match, a 20-20 draw with France, is the only result which could be considered an upset of sorts, although the 2015 quarter final against Australia was within moments of becoming one of the sport’s biggest stories.
The established pattern of the tournament is that when it comes to facing a higher-ranked team at the Rugby World Cup, Scotland come second. We might not like the way it happened this week, but we can only be surprised if we ignore the evidence that has built up over the years. And for those who say that Sunday’s match in Yokohama is as bad as they have seen a Scotland side play at the Rugby World Cup, try watching a re-run of the horrific 51-9 defeat to France in 2003.
But the flipside of Scotland’s predictability is that we usually win the games we are expected to win, and this has achieved the consistency of only missing out on a place in the quarter finals once.
The challenge now is to repeat that achievement this time around. It will be harder than ever, with the final group match against hosts Japan, a fixture that few nations of Scotland’s standing would relish. But if Gregor Townsend’s teams can successfully negotiate their way through the next three matches, the prospect of a quarter final against New Zealand lies ahead. At this stage, all is not lost.