After today’s 16–12 defeat to England, Scotland didn’t really deserve to progress, having lost two of their four pool matches and only scraping by in the two they did win, against Romania and Georgia.
But those bald match statistics don’t tell the real story of how, yet again, Scotland dominated a game against supposedly superior opponents and, yet again, failed to kill off the match when they had the chance.
Scotland were leading 9–3 at half time and 12–3 midway through the second half, but they allowed England to score 13 unanswered points in the final third of the game.
For the second week running, Scotland were the better team over the 80 minutes – but, once again, it was their opponents who were the more clinical, taking the one chance they had and, with it, the match and those all-important World Cup points.
England had not looked like scoring before Chris Ashton’s try in the last ten minutes, and rarely had they threatened the Scotland line.
But the problem for Scotland was that they didn’t really look like scoring, either. The best chance came after a Simon Danielli kick down the left channel which sat on the ground five metres from the try-line for Nick De Luca to pick up and score.
The Scotland centre couldn’t collect the ball and the chance disappeared. There was one kick over to the left corner from Dan Parks – but, however athletic Richie Gray is, he is still a second-row forward and it needed a back or a Richie Vernon to be waiting on the wing for Scotland to have had any chance of outpacing Tom Croft to the ball. And so that slight chance was gone, too.
Once again, this was a story of slight but definite dominance up front and a complete lack of finishing from the backs. Scotland lack the clinical edge their opponents seem to find and, until Scotland do find a way of crossing the try-line more regularly, they will struggle to win these close games.
Once again, the forwards were immense. Euan Murray destroyed Matt Stevens in the front row. Richie Gray and Al Kellock more than held their own in the line-out and the back row dominated the breakdown, slowing down England ball and providing a good supply for their half-backs.
Mike Blair was almost back to his best, making a series of sniping runs to keep England going backwards. But, while there was plenty of grunt outside him, Scotland just didn’t have backs of the quality of someone like Ashton.
Right through this game, Scots supporters all over the world would have shared the nagging feeling that England always had the ability to produce something special and that, despite never really threatening, they had the players to find that score from nothing – and so it proved.
Scotland were stretched near the end, but Toby Flood’s looping pass was perfect because it cut out the Scottish drift defence and left Ashton the space he needed to squeeze in at the corner.
For Ruaridh Jackson, the game ended early when he went off in the opening minutes with a hamstring injury. With Parks controlling the game, Scotland’s back play was relatively laboured and slow and there is no way of knowing how the faster and better-passing Jackson would have done in the circumstances.
But at least Scotland had Parks’ boot to rely on, first from the tee when he struck a penalty which was out of Chris Paterson’s range and then with a dropped goal on the stroke of half-time followed by another in the second half.
Parks also controlled territory well, sending a series of kicks to the English touchlines and keeping Scotland in their opponents’ half. But it was his over-cooked cross-kick to the corner (which Gray had no chance of gathering) and a wasted up-and-under close to England’s posts that handed over possession to the English at crucial times.
So England march on to a quarter-final with a so far unimpressive French side that lost to Tonga this morning, while Scotland head home.
The Scots always knew the games with Argentina and England would prove crucial – and, having lost them both, there is little they can argue with.
Looking back, the Scots will know they played well enough to win both games, but the usual fault of a lack of finishing and the absence of a clinical edge cost them dear.
On the plus side, Murray is back to his best at tighthead – even though his refusal to play on Sundays is still a handicap. The locks and the back-rows all performed with distinction against a series of mighty packs, and Jackson has really matured.
Other than that, we know that Max Evans is Scotland’s most dangerous attacker, that Sean Lamont never stops trying and that Joe Ansbro has real quality. But the bottom line is that Scotland only scored four tries in four games and all of those came against the relative minnows of Romania.
That, in the end, just isn’t good enough – and that is the biggest difference between Scotland and the rest of the nations around their level in world rugby. It will be something to reflect on ruefully as they watch the rest of the tournament, with the rest of us, on television.