A couple of weeks on from Scotland’s early exit to hosts Japan, Jamie Byrne takes a reflective look back on a disappointing tournament for the national team.
On the morning of 22 September, alarm clocks across the homeland rang as the sun began to rise on a chilly Sunday in Scotland. Tension was in the air. A mere 5,662 miles away, a man-mountain in the form of Gregor Townsend set about to inspire a group of men to put on a performance like they had never done before, ahead of Scotland’s opening game of the Rugby World Cup in Japan. He reminded the players about everyone at home, the pain and suffering that the country had experienced when it came to sport in the last few decades. The weight of expectation they had from home, just wanting the team to make the country proud. Could this be the side that stopped the jokes about our little nation when it came to the major sporting finals? Could this be the side that laid down a marker for future generations? Could this be the side that triggered a golden era for Scottish sport? There was only one real answer to all those questions… No.
As Scotland entered the wet Yokohama International Stadium to face Ireland, very few could expect the battering that Scotland were about to face. The whole shape of the team was wrong, a poor back line, players not looking interested or committed, slow build-up play, and failure to win tackles; all of this contributed towards an abysmal 27-3 defeat in Scotland’s opening game of the biggest event in the rugby calendar. They only managed to score a penalty kick in a desperate attempt to get points on the board. Then the worldwide reaction came in…
“This was a lamentable non-performance,” according to BBC Scotland’s outspoken Tom English, on Scotland’s humiliating opening performance against the Irish. Quotes coming through claiming Scotland were "bullied” and that "I’d be embarrassed by that performance”. Scotland were the laughing stock of the opening set of fixtures, and it was going to take a lot to come back from as this young Scottish side had never faced this much criticism before. Townsend was certainly targeted the most by the media and the fans, needing a remarkable reaction from his team after what he claimed was a severe lack of “energy, accuracy and aggression” from his side. The only positive note the head coach could take from that performance was that you can only go up from rock bottom. And it certainly did for a while.
It was going to take a hell of a performance to put a smile back on the faces of Scottish rugby fans, but thankfully, that’s exactly what the national team put on. It was a night and day performance against Samoa compared to the Ireland match. The anger and embarrassment were evident in the tartan half of the enclosed and extremely humid Misaki Stadium in the city of Kobe. Scotland were out for retribution, and to put that diabolical display from last week into distant memory. The intensity and execution were certainly present for Scotland, as an energetic and positive mentality was absolutely delivered. Changes were made to the Scotland backline. With a new wing and centre partnership, this fresh-faced backline was determined to prove a point and do the country proud against a tough Samoa side, winning an emphatic 34-0, alongside a bonus point. And, with Scotland’s next match up against Russia, clearly the weakest side of the group, and a shock Irish loss to hosts Japan, the group was all to play for.
Townsend was determined for Scotland to carry the momentum after a wonderful display against Samoa and that’s exactly what they did, boosting the World Cup quarter final hopes. The tartan team scoring nine unanswered tries along the way against Russia in Shizuoka, claiming a second bonus point in a row, and really getting the crowd behind them in what would be one of the biggest games in the last decade for Scottish rugby: facing hosts Japan, who have been known to cause major upsets over the years in the final game of the group.
The pressure was on; could Scotland jump the final hurdle in getting to the quarter finals following a remarkable turnaround after the tragic opening display of the tournament? And, with Ireland winning their final game against Samoa beforehand, it was all to play for between Scotland and the hosts of the tournament. The game was actually in question as to whether it was going ahead due to adverse weather conditions. The turbulence could be seen in the sky when the game was allowed to go ahead.
In the end, it would be the hosts that would progress and finish top of the pool after an extremely entertaining match. It finished 28-21, with the Japanese sealing a historic win, entering the quarter finals for the first time in their history. It was an exceptionally tough one to take, especially after Scotland took the lead in the early stages of the match. After a 20-minute period between the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, where Scotland conceded 28 points after four dazzling converted tries, it was just too much to claw back for the Scots. The late comeback, which just fell short, summarised Scotland’s World Cup experience. Moments of lost concentration and a lack of consistency throughout matches ended up being Scotland’s Achilles’ heel, especially after showing they had to ability to progress to the quarters.
It could be argued that Scotland’s World Cup campaign was unlucky and, on another day, it could have gone differently. But we’ve heard this over and over again: “that one game that cost us”; “that one decision”. There’s no justifying being battered by Ireland, nor conceding four tries in such quick succession in that game. Change is needed and needed now. Is Townsend really the man to set Scotland up for another World Cup campaign? The next few weeks will be vital for the Scottish Rugby Union to sort out a pressing and ongoing issue.