After 40 minutes of the kind of inertia that has become painfully familiar in 2022, Scotland stirred in Jujuy.
Trailing the Pumas 18-6 at the break, they rallied, scored two rapid tries and drew themselves level. They finally had ball and something resembling attacking cohesion.
Entering the last quarter, we would see what Gregor Townsend’s team were made of. Sink or swim time on tour.
They sank – 26-18. Failure to deal with the restart after Rory Hutchinson’s try was the beginning of the end for the tourists. What came next was like a revisiting of the worst moments from Dublin and Cardiff in the Six Nations – a soft try conceded, a forward pass here, a ball out on the full there, a ball dropped, a ridiculous penalty given away, poor decision upon poor decision.
The Scots got what they deserved in the end. That’s four losses in six Tests this year.
Scotland played for about 15 or 20 minutes of the 80 in Argentina. A bit of a recurring theme, that. Rugby can be maddeningly complex, but there’s a basic that’s as simple and as straightforward now as it was a century ago. If your defence isn’t up to it, then you can forget about it. If you ship easy scores, then you’re leaving yourself a mountain to climb. Sometimes you’ll climb it; more often than not, you won’t.
Of course they were without Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Chris Harris, Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie. Their absence might explain some of what went on, but there’s a bigger picture of decline here. Four of that five started in Cardiff, the worst performance the team has put in since the World Cup in Japan almost three years ago. Ritchie was the one who didn’t play. Then and now, his loss is felt acutely, not just in his belligerence but in his intelligence and leadership.
Scotland lack badness in their pack and Ritchie typifies that. On Saturday, everybody was too nice. Nice ain’t cutting it against Argentina in Argentina.
Every big Scotland victory since 2020 has had Ritchie at the heart of it – home and away against England, home and away against France, away to Wales in Llanelli, home to Australia at Murrayfield. He didn’t play in the loss to Wales in Edinburgh in 2021, didn’t play in the awful loss to Wales in Cardiff this year, didn’t play in the spiritless defeat in Dublin, or in the despond of Jujuy.
When Ritchie’s not around, Scotland struggle on the nasty front. It’s not the only reason their form has fallen off a cliff this year, but it’s a part of it.
More doesn’t mean better
Remember when Scotland’s defence was the best in Europe? Remember when it was difficult to break them down? That was 2020 and 2021. Steve Tandy, the defence coach, got on the Lions coaching ticket on the back of it. Five tries conceded in five Tests in the 2020 Six Nations. Unreal. Ten tries conceded in the 2021 Six Nations. Still impressive.
Almost from the moment Ritchie succumbed to a hamstring injury during the opening game of the Six Nations this season, the win over England, things changed. They conceded one try in that match. They conceded 13 more in three Ritchie-less games against France, Italy and Ireland and another three against the Pumas on Saturday.
Sixteen tries given up in four games. That’s more than they conceded in nine Tests in 2020 and more than they conceded in nine Tests in 2021. So much for the old mantra of staying in the fight. There’s a soft underbelly in this team and it’s sending Scotland spinning into reverse.
There’s been much talk about Scotland’s increased player depth. More players doesn’t necessarily mean better players. They’re getting pretty much nothing from their under-20s, a barren space where Scottish Rugby is failing dismally. The Under-20s are now on a run of 12 straight defeats.
Of the major nations, Scotland must be the worst at delivering young Test players. Only two professional teams is a major barrier. That’s not changing any time soon.
Townsend is now in an unenviable position. His set-piece was in trouble at times in the first Test, of three, and he barely had a single carrier worthy of the name up front. Test match aggression is lacking. Where’s the brutality? Does it always have to be down to Ritchie?
They had it for two seasons in 2020 and 2021, but it’s gone now. They were playing at altitude, for sure, but let’s not engage in excuse making here. To be fair, none of those who spoke afterwards went down that road.
Townsend has chosen to rest some frontliners, which would be fine if he was on a run of wins and had freedom to experiment with new combinations. He needs victories. He needs to get back to a place where teams have to work a whole lot harder to break down his side than Argentina had to work.
Scotland conceded an average of 15 points per game in 2020, an average of 19 points per game in 2021. In 2022, that number has rocketed to 24.5. The direction of travel is deeply worrying. With the World Cup starting next September, Scotland have picked a bad time to start going backwards.
Townsend needs more from Kinghorn
This is a collective drop-off. Players and coaches. Inevitably, there are certain individuals who draw the heat more than others and Blair Kinghorn is one of those. Never mind that his pack of forwards are nowhere near their level of before, Kinghorn is the subject of some angry commentary among Scotland fans.
Townsend is looking for evidence that his hope of turning Kinghorn into an international class 10 is progressing. It’s wholly understandable why the coach wants to persist with this – Finn Russell has had a poor season, he’s clearly not sure about Adam Hastings – who, in any event, is injured – and Ross Thompson is still too raw.
He needs Kinghorn to come through and provide genuine competition for Russell. Townsend has forgotten more about fly-half play than most of the rest of us will ever know, so he must be seeing something that tells him Kinghorn can make it.
There’s been evidence of his ability at 10 in the United Rugby Championship, but it’s been against the lesser lights for the most part. Occasionally, he’s sparkled against some bigger teams, but there’s a world of difference between URC matches and proper Test rugby. It’s the same sport, but only just.
Kinghorn did some clever things on Saturday, but he had no control and his error count was infuriatingly high. Townsend is all-in on this though. He desperately needs some payback in the fortnight ahead.
Not just from Kinghorn – this problem is far, far greater than the man at 10 – but from all of them. Their regression has been stark. Townsend, Tandy and the rest have two weeks to turn this around. They’d better get busy.