Scotland again failed to reach the quarter-finals after a similarly premature departure four years ago
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The question was direct and to the point, but the possible answers were innumerable. “What went wrong?”, Gregor Townsend was asked moments after the Scotland head coach had taken his seat, head bowed in quiet contemplation over a second consecutive Rugby World Cup pool stage exit.
Here was a blank canvas upon which to catalogue the woes, wishes and what-might-have-beens of a night where Scotland’s tournament dreams had come crashing down. What had gone wrong? A night that had begun with such optimism that Ireland could be beaten ended with barely a whimper, Scotland sent home with their tails between their legs. This had always felt a likely date of departure, the brutality of the pool draw leaving an early exit an entirely feasible proposition, but did it really have to be as meek as this?
“Obviously it’s a very disappointing result,” Townsend began. “We’ve gone out of the World Cup playing the number one team in the world and they were well ahead at half-time, but we played the number two team in the opening game and it was a close game.
“In isolation, it’s a really disappointing defeat against a very good side that we believed we had the ability to defeat but they were the better team tonight. They were excellent, probably the best I’ve seen them play. It’s probably where we are and where they are, in terms of their ranking.”
Jamie Ritchie had said his side would have to “fire every bullet in their gun” to beat Ireland; for too much of the encounter in Paris, Scotland were shooting blanks. Until Ewan Ashman and Ali Price crossed late on, Townsend’s vaunted attack had played more than 140 minutes against the world’s top two without scoring a try.
When it works, their wide, wide game captivates, and it is impossible not to applaud the accuracy and ambition with which this team can play. But against the very top defences, and Ireland now deserve to be bracketed alongside South Africa in that regard, more is required, and Scotland are lacking the ferocity around the fringes or sharp tactical variations to pivot to. Again, they will watch quarter-final weekend from home knowing they were good, but not good enough.
“I think you’ve got to look at each World Cup differently,” Townsend suggested afterwards, sat alongside skipper Ritchie, arm in a sling after a blow to the shoulder.
Jamie Ritchie suffered a shoulder injury in Scotland’s defeat
“We were drawn with the number one and number two teams in the world and we lost to them both. We’ve never beaten a team ranked above us at any World Cup we’ve played in. You may have to go back all the way to 1987 to ask if we can do better.
“But we certainly have to do better, and the responsibility is mine. We believed that we could get out of this pool, and we still believed that after losing to South Africa. We had an opportunity tonight that we didn’t take.
“Ireland are a better team than us on tonight’s performance, and that’s a 17th win in a row, so they’ve clearly been a better team than us over the last couple of years. But we’ve got to make sure this defeat makes us a better team for the Six Nations and the next World Cup.”
Regenerating this sort of squad will prove tricky. The Scottish pathway system is in a mess and struggling to develop new talent: the under-20s finished third in the second tier World Rugby trophy, behind Spain and Uruguay, this summer.
The Fosroc Super Series was designed to bridge the gap between club rugby and the nation’s two professional clubs, but has become an almost aimless competition. The early returns from the addition of a Futures XV to aid player development have been unencouraging, while the fact that there are no competing teams from Glasgow is still perplexing.
Scotland as a nation are not producing top class tight five forwards. Richie Gray and Grant Gilchrist, the starting locks at this tournament, will surely not make another. WP Nel’s retirement feels imminent and will put a focus back on an almost frightening lack of tighthead depth. Stuart Hogg is already gone; who knows for how much longer the mage Finn Russell, 31, will be capable of casting the spells that his side often require.
“I would say that this World Cup has shown we’ve got really good depth in the top 30,” Townsend said. “The players in this group and just outside this group are test quality.
“But we have to get more players through. With the way Irish rugby is set up, they could dominate test rugby for the next five years. They are the number one team in the world and they’ve got a pro rugby system that is very strong and an age-group system that is very strong.
“We’ve got to do better. This group of players have got us to fifth in the world, which is the best we’ve ever been, but we know we have to make sure that continues for the next ten years.”
And that, ultimately, is the big question. Is this as good as it gets for Scotland or is there more to come from this squad? In four years time, will there be a side better prepared to take on the world’s best? And is Townsend the right man to prepare it?
The handing of a contract extension to the head coach at the end of the Six Nations came as a surprise to some. The Scotland head coach is understood to other prospective employers with the direction of travel seemingly a post-tournament exit, but the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU), encouraged by another solid Six Nations, felt that the coach had the right skillset to take them forward.
Does the manner of the exit change that opinion? Perspectives on the job done by the head coach differ significantly. Some suggest that he has lifted this group to heights never achieved by a Scottish side; some feel that he should have got more tangible success out of a talented squad that, for all of their progress, still hasn’t come particularly close to breaking the Six Nations title duck.
The contract itself is of an odd length, taking Townsend through to 2026, but not the next World Cup. Does that hint at a thought that there is every chance that this is as good as it might get for this Scotland side, and change may be required before the next tournament? The dust will be allowed to settle over the next couple of months before Scotland look at the foundations left and try to build again.
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