Six Nations: Johnson's blue collar Scotland take their chances

 

Whether it is marbles, shove ha'penny or rugby union, if you fail to take your opportunities, there is always a chance you will pay the price. Miracles don't happen in sport, it's just that sportspeople don't always get things right.

There was an awful lot not right about the match between Scotland and Ireland on Sunday. After a scintillating opening weekend to this year's Six Nations, the standard has fallen away dramatically. Though dramatically is the operative word, for while the quality is on the decline, the action remains compelling.

"You can't put in what God left out and the dog has always been there," was Scotland head coach Scott Johnson's post-match assessment. The Australian is greatly enhancing his reputation not only as a man who can squeeze an awful lot from seemingly dry lemons, but also as a press conference bard.

Official match stats

Scotland Ireland

29%

Possession

71%

23%

Territory

77%

5 (2)

Scrums won (lost)

5 (2)

11 (1)

Line-outs won (lost)

13 (4)

16

Pens conceded

13

29

Rucks won

106

30

Possession kicked

28

128 (16)

Tackles made (missed)

44(4)

1

Offloads

7

0

Line breaks

4

(provided by accenture)

Where exactly Scotland's dog went in the first 40 minutes of play, Johnson was unable to explain, but the statistics made for ugly reading: the hosts had 20% of possession and 22% of territory before the break, which suggests Ireland should have been over the hill and far, far away. Instead, they were only 3-0 ahead.

The fact Declan Kidney's Ireland were still in sight was down to a crippling combination of poor execution and decision-making. A Luke Marshall break should have led to a try for Craig Gilroy but the Ulster debutant butchered his pass, before Keith Earls went on his own when he had Brian O'Driscoll inside him. I would repeat what O'Driscoll said but there might be children reading.

Furthermore, Jamie Heaslip turned down three kicks at goal in the first half, further evidence that the Leinster number eight, who had a poor game against England, is finding the burden of captaincy difficult to shoulder.

Heaslip denied his decisions to kick for the corner were influenced by Paddy Jackson's hashed penalty attempt early in the piece. But had Ronan O'Gara been picked at 10 for Ireland instead, surely the Munster veteran would have been thrown the ball and asked to take a punt.

In fairness to debutant Jackson, he played a part in a couple of line-breaks that could have led to tries. But Kidney was being disingenuous when he said Jackson's goal-kicking role was "secondary". In tight Test match rugby, possessing a reliable goal-kicker is paramount.

It was telling that Jackson's coach at Ulster, Mark Anscombe, admitted his surprise at his charge's inclusion ahead of O'Gara. Some of Jackson's team-mates might have been surprised, too, especially those Leinster forwards who gave him such a torrid time in last year's Heineken Cup final.

We took our chances - Johnson

Kidney was on the horns of a dilemma: with Jonathan Sexton injured, he went for youthful exuberance over vast experience. And for every man who says O'Gara would have popped at least a couple of those penalties over, there is another who says 'ROG' is past it.

Meanwhile, others believe there was no dilemma at all and that Kidney should have picked Leinster's Ian Madigan.

As vulgar as it is to publicly discuss Kidney's future, elite sport is an intensely vulgar world. Having made the controversial call to pick Heaslip as captain ahead of the talismanic Brian O'Driscoll, and Jackson ahead of O'Gara, and now lost two out of three Six Nations games this season, Kidney knows the decision-makers at the Irish Rugby Football Union may just be sharpening their axes.

While Kidney, Heaslip and co were sitting in their changing room wondering how a game they should have won at a canter had gone the other way, Scotland's players and coaching staff were celebrating with more than a hint of bemusement. If Johnson's predecessor Andy Robinson was watching he would no doubt have been cursing his luck, or the lack of it, during his unhappy tenure.

Before half-time Scotland were dismal - weak in the first-up tackle, blown away at the breakdown, it was as though last week's record Six Nations victory over Italy never happened.

Craig Gilroy scores a try for Ireland against Scotland

Gilroy try puts Ireland in control

Mercurial referee Wayne Barnes, who will be buried with a whistle in his mouth and whose sin-binning of Scotland prop Ryan Grant was harsh in the extreme, hardly helped. Fortunately for the beleaguered Murrayfield faithful, Ireland were in generous mood.

Among the carnage there were brave performances. Man of the match Jim Hamilton was colossal, pinching three line-outs after Heaslip had opted for the kick and drive.

"I've learnt in my short time in Scotland that Jim's not everyone's cup of tea," said Johnson. "He's probably a bit lucky the Scotland coaching staff are coffee drinkers." On a day when few players enhanced their Lions chances, the Gloucester lock was certainly one of them.

Elsewhere, Scotland missed 16 tackles - although they also made 128 to Ireland's 44 - conceded 16 penalties, didn't make a single line break and managed only one offload. But, as Johnson was eager to stress, prevailing against such overwhelming odds can be every bit as uplifting as burying an opponent. Like an ugly man wooing a beautiful woman, Scotland didn't rely on their looks.

"It was like watching Ali-Foreman," said Johnson. "It was like we were lulling them into a false sense of security. We had a massive penalty count against us, massive territorial inferiority, a sin-bin, but we fought.

"We took our opportunities, the few that came our way, and they didn't take theirs. That was the sole difference. But the win was humbling and the boys were proud of their effort. It certainly brought out the blue collar boy in me."

Sunday's game at Murrayfield brought out the blue collar boy in everyone. If miracles do exist, in sport or otherwise, they are surely more beautiful than this.