Once upon a time, there was a game we would be invited to play called ‘Whither Irish Rugby?’
Typically, the invite would arrive around this point on the calendar. March would bring its traditional bone-chilling winds, and with them would come introspection over another failed Five Nations campaign.
Our colleagues in Scotland have been playing their version of it for so long now they are industry leaders. They know all the shortcuts, the workarounds, the vocabulary even, to get to the finish line and close the lid on the laptop comfortably inside the deadline.
In recent times, they have taken to calling us up for insights on the Irish system. It’s not that long since Scotland and Ireland fished in the same shallow pool, so for one of us to achieve sustained bounty takes some explaining.
It also leads to the odd misconception. For example, a conversation on Monday morning went as follows:
“How many of your 20s are playing regularly in the URC?”
We pause for thought.
You can see where they’re coming from. Scotland’s Under-20s had been emasculated by Ireland in Scotstoun last Friday night. Men against boys is a much-used phrase in this business to describe the physical disparity between teams. It got some airplay that night.
So it follows that these bigger, stronger Irish athletes should be earning some corn with the seniors in their league. Of the 23 on duty for Ireland last weekend, only Ruadhan Quinn and Evan O’Connell have come close to that rarified air: Quinn has had three runs off the bench for Munster this season, while O’Connell was named in a match-day squad but never got onto the field.
Instead, the bulk of them get their kicks in the All-Ireland League, which is good for them and the competition. The Scots, meantime, mostly use the Super 6 competition for development.
It sounds like a cut above the AIL, to have six souped-up clubs in a huddle, and next month, they’ll be competing in a new domestic competition, with the 'A' sides from Glasgow and Edinburgh thrown in.
All this sounds compact and on track, so maybe it’s below that line where the turbo boost needs to kick in. If Ireland can batter and run around their Scottish counterparts who are part of this ‘elite’ new system, then the raw material must be lacking.
It will take an age for them to fix that. In the meantime, Scotland’s senior side must deal with a gaping hole beneath the waterline ahead of the meeting with Ireland in Stade de France on October 7.
That World Cup pool game was the added value in the Edinburgh fixture last weekend, where the bad weather forecast was as off-key as local hopes of a win. It’s been noticeable how the analysis since then has leaned towards the excellence of Ireland much more than the inability of Scotland to take advantage of a unique set of circumstances.
Might it have been different if, late in the first half, Duhan van der Merwe passed the ball with Hugo Keenan committed to the tackle and a try-scoring overlap to his right? That likely would have given them a 14-8 at the break, with a powerful effect on the crowd. It was the sort of butchery that requires a special licence.
It was compounded by their stunning inability to get stuck into Ireland’s lineout. You’ve seen the Whatsapp joke about the pilot announcing an emergency, asking for anyone with the ability to fly a plane to step forward, whereupon Josh van der Flier unbuckles his seatbelt and strolls towards the cockpit?
Van der Flier coped manfully at the controls of the Irish lineout, but even casual observers must have realised his only viable flight path was to the front. And still, Scotland couldn’t shoot him down?
Their second half against Ireland was a reprise of their last half an hour against New Zealand in November. On both occasions, they went from active involvement in the game to being passive spectators to their own downfall.
Whatever happens both teams en route to the World Cup pool to that last game before the quarter-finals, the Scots can’t undo this. They can’t rationalise their failure in a positive way.
There was no robbery, no shocking refereeing decision that snatched victory from their grasp. Rather, there was a freakish run of injuries to their opponents, and still, Scotland couldn’t take advantage. What would it take for them to avoid defeat by Ireland in successive World Cups?
This is something Gregor Townsend is grappling with on top of getting out of this Six Nations without Italy pulling a stunt on them. Townsend will move on after the World Cup.
If he is planning a family holiday, then surely he’s booking it directly after the pool phase. Given his team’s habit of suddenly stalling when they get a head of steam up, he might even slip out the door ahead of the final whistle.
He can leave his successor to play the next instalment of Whither Scottish Rugby.