'Gregor Townsend's soft-touch Scotland floundering in fantasyland'
There was something impossibly grim and hopelessly familiar about Scotland's latest shellacking under Gregor Townsend. Five tries conceded against France in Nice. Five tries conceded against England at Twickenham. Ten tries shipped in two Tests. In 2019, the Scots have conceded an average of four tries per game.
The PR around this team is that this is a squad of players who are on the cusp of a long-awaited breakthrough. The reality is that they're a soft touch and, away from home, they're only getting softer. The lack of leadership on the field and the lack of an alternative plan from the coach's box is a deep concern.
Rugby is becoming a game of cosmic complexity but the key to beating Scotland is too often gloriously simple. Attrition usually wins the day. Townsend has yet to find a way of dealing with the most brutally physical teams.
The coach has a reputation for being a free-thinker, an innovator. It's true, but only to a point. Townsend is actually quite rigid in his approach. Attack, attack, attack. The "fastest brand of rugby in the world" as he puts it. He is in thrall to the expansive game and it's hit and miss. His approach is commendable to an extent, but in modern rugby - where Wales can finish joint bottom of the try-scoring chart and yet still win a Grand Slam - it's naive. Scotland can entertain but they can't win enough games to make them contenders in anything.
'Scotland's rustiness didn't begin in Nice'
In the rugby war of tournament play - as opposed to the relative peace-time of summer and autumn Tests - Scotland's numbers are deteriorating. Third in the Six Nations in Townsend's first season and fifth in his second. Fourteen tries against in the Six Nations in 2018 and 17 against in 2019. Wales, by contrast, conceded 18 in the last two Six Nations combined. Wales, and others, live in the real world. Scotland still reside in a fantasyland where all games can be won by playing rugby from the Gods. What happens when the opposition doesn't believe in God?
Scotland were too easy to score against in those games and they were too easy to score against on Saturday. After a few weeks of fighting talk about all the work they've been putting in on improving their defence, they go and concede in France's first attack in Nice and then concede four more times on a night that ought to send a shiver up the spine up the coach with little over a month to go before they play Ireland in their World Cup opener.
- Hapless Scotland crushed by France
- Price demands more desire from players
- Scotland need big improvements - Townsend
Let's dispense with the argument that as this was their first hit-out of the season they have a right to be rusty. The rustiness didn't begin on Saturday. Save for the odd exception, Scotland have been lousy on the road for an awfully long time, no matter what time of year they happen to be playing. Let's also trash the point that, since this wasn't Scotland at full strength, it would be wrong to read too much into it. Garbage. All bar a couple of the starters in Nice will be in Japan.
It'll be different when France visit Murrayfield on Saturday? Scotland will likely win that Test. They may even win it with a bit of elan with Finn Russell restored to the starting line-up. That will prove only the continuation of Scotland's boom and Scotland's bust, that they are a team that is nowhere nearer to achieving consistent performances now than they were in Townsend's early weeks in the job when they beat Australia one week and then lost to Fiji the next.
Scotland at home are a different animal to Scotland away from home. There's no future in that. Being a home-town team is not much use when the World Cup is in Japan. The away performances in games that matter have been mostly wretched under Townsend. There are no signs of lessons being learned. None.
'Townsend needs to come up with Plan B'
The rusty argument? France weren't rusty. They were powerful and accurate and pretty clinical. They were an exciting amalgam of French grunt and French dynamism. They won by 29 points and could have won by more. France, not surprisingly, met Scotland's "fastest brand of rugby" bravado with some monstrous physicality.
Try and play rapid rugby when you've no ball, and you're having to make a million tackles to stay alive. Townsend should never again utter that phrase, not until he comes up with a Plan B at any rate. He doesn't have one, not when the opposition turn on the power as France did on Saturday and as they did in the Six Nations where they scored four tries mostly through the strength of their forwards.
What is it with Scotland's slow beginnings in significant Test matches? Why the repeated vulnerability in the opening minutes of games? It's an ailment that doesn't just happen away from home.
Against Ireland in the Six Nations, they conceded two tries in the first 17 minutes at Murrayfield. Against France, they gave up one try and could have given up three in the first 13 minutes. Wales scored twice inside the opening half hour in Edinburgh. England scored four tries in 29 minutes at Twickenham. On Saturday, it took France less than two minutes to score and just over 20 minutes to score again to put themselves into a 15-0 lead. The game was pretty much done at that point. Gone in 22 minutes.
Were there pluses in Nice? A few. Duncan Taylor returned after two years without a cap and played 48 encouraging minutes. Rory Hutchinson came on for Taylor and made an impression. Jamie Ritchie fought the good fight in the back-row. With only two more games before the final 31-man squad is named, guys on the fringe needed to show up.
Too many didn't. Some will get away with it because they have credit in the bank and there's no better option. Josh Strauss didn't have that leeway. Also, Scotland are worryingly thin at loosehead and could have done with a big game from Jamie Bhatti. It didn't happen. Both of them are struggling now.
Townsend hasn't adequately explained why Richie Gray is not in his expanded squad. In the coach's mind, Gray is behind his brother, Jonny, Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist, Sam Skinner and Scott Cummings. Scotland's sixth best lock? Really? It remains unfathomable why a player who offers so many different things - reliable lineout ball being just one of them - is surplus to requirements.
The show moves back to Edinburgh on Saturday. It's France again. Home comforts make Scotland favourites to win that game and, if they do, the chat will return to how good they can be when they get it it right and how much of a threat they can be if they click in Japan. It's the yo-yo world they live in.
In Nice, Townsend had another chance to show that he was making progress in the pursuit of resilience on the road. There isn't a shred of evidence that he's getting there.