“Russell sideshow rumbles on as self-flagellating Scotland lose innings by inches”

“Russell sideshow rumbles on as self-flagellating Scotland lose innings by inches”

As Blair Kinghorn stood over the ball, the clock ticking towards 80 minutes, the game resting in the palm of his hand and on the instep of his right boot, so many minds inside a bewitched Murrayfield were drifting to France. They flicked to Finn Russell and what the bewildered playmaker would have done, and looked up the same kick. They assessed Russell’s penchant for not only reaching the big moments but owning them, and they wondered, some of them aloud, if Kinghorn had the same ability. The kick was not just a match-decider, rightly or wrongly, it became Scotland’s fly-half furore in microcosm.

Scottish rugby tends to revel in uproar, but we haven’t seen the kind of thermonuclear reaction ignited by Russell’s omission from the autumn squad for a long time. It dominated the preamble and will dominate the autopsy.

Kinghorn did a lot of good against the Wallabies on Saturday. Some very good ones. He had a delightfully soft hand in Ollie Smith’s score, and save Beauden Barrett, it’s hard to think of an international ten with the keen vision, brilliant top speed and football skills to score the try he did.

Kinghorn grabbed a bobbled ball after it was dislodged from an Australian leg and hacked away to meters of unguarded prairie. He was too quick for the cover, and too precise with the boot for anyone to beat him for the prize. It was a sixty yard stretch of two beautifully weighted hacks and brought Murrayfield to a thunderous crescendo. People were thinking about Russell at that moment, too. Only they thought that for all his brilliance, the Racing man wouldn’t have the gas to score such a try.

We’ll be talking about Kinghorn and Russell for a while yet. Months, probably, as World Cup talk intensifies and Test matches are won and lost.

Of course it was wrong too. Kinghorn cut on his first conversion attempt. The absence of an elite marksman to match Greig Laidlaw continues to gnaw at Scotland. Kinghorn’s kick from the hand was a bit rough. He denied an overlap in the second half with a hard-handed parabola that was too high for Jamie Ritchie and forward anyway. Then – and this is what everyone will talk about and everyone will remember – he pulled his colossal shot wide. With that, the match was over.

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We’ll be talking about Kinghorn and Russell for a while yet. Months, probably, as World Cup talk intensifies and Test matches are won and lost. On some level, and at least today, this is a moot debate, as Russell could never have played in an international outside the window. His absence was not the reason Scotland lost.

No, without Russell, Scotland instead reverted to a familiar routine of self-flagellation. Error amplified error. Punishment followed drowsy punishment. Luke Pearce did them three times for crazy line-out infringements. Pearce could – possibly should – have shown red instead of yellow to Glen Young for a monster tackle on the head of Tate McDermott.

On first viewing, from the stand, it looked incredibly clean. On the TV replays it looked like an emissary. Young, going full tilt, made a huge effort to support a line change. He is 6 ft 6 ins tall. McDermott is not. As low as he got, as much as he tried to wrap his arms, he was never going to be in a position to legitimately dislodge the jackaling scrum-half. Still galloping flat out, he was never going to avoid the collision either.

Skottland <a href=
Australia match report” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> Blair Kinghorn reacts after his late miss (Photo by Ross Parker/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Townsend voiced his concerns about the jackal and its place in the sport afterwards, not as a petty coach angry at Pearce’s call, but as a concerned rugby man. As we watch ACLs explode and brains rattle, his words are compelling.

“That’s the risk and reward of the game,” Townsend said. “I personally think that the jackal should be taken out. Too many injuries to the jackal. Too much risk on where you take someone out.

“We have to win races to win contact, we encourage players to sprint to win that race because if you don’t, you won’t be able to move that jackal. If someone sprints, he’s not going to slow down a yard before the debris in enough time.

“We said to Glen, ‘it’s a world-class game or a yellow card’. There is nothing you can change about it, unless you decide not to go to the ruck and let the player win the ball. I don’t say [the decision to sin-bin Young] is right or wrong, but personally I think we have to get the jackal out.”

Soon after, Ollie Smith and Duhan van der Merwe handed a tame Bernard Foley penalty to each other and instead of punishing the fly-half for his undercooked punt, they let it bounce into touch. From the line-out, Nic White bought a smart penalty from Hamish Watson on the maul. Townsend was unhappy with the call, and with how Scotland’s own maul did not provide more rewards when he rolled towards the Australian line before hitting the tyre.

Their failure to show the street smarts to keep the penalty count down and recklessness to turn vertical balls into tries proved their undoing.

Scotland blew brilliant chances to score more tries in each half to put clear blue water between them in the Wallabies in a game that was so even. Sione Tuipulotu, one of Townsend’s best players on the day, dropped the ball with the line at his mercy. The package was held up on the paint when there was a walk-in sample on offer they had spun it. Grant Gilchrist coughed one up as he looked certain to crash over, although the effort would have been scrubbed off for Young’s clear-out in front. They didn’t get enough ball to Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham, their main strikers, who combined for just eight shots. They rejected kickable penalties in search of greater rewards. They lost a line-out in the Australian 22 with the pressure on. The sloppiness at the set-piece was a recurring theme.

So much of this was self-inflicted and so much of it could have been avoided. The Kinghorns’ mounting effort made it 15-6, a two-goal lead with 25 minutes remaining. They were pegged back when Young was in the bin and James Slipper went over, usurping when Watson was penalized and Foley struck. There were echoes of Santiago del Estero and the third Test against Argentina, as Scotland let a 15-point lead slip through their fingers in the final innings. Their failure to show the street smarts to keep the penalty count down and recklessness to turn vertical balls into tries proved their undoing.

There were positives in that match too, no doubt. Smith was a big one. In for Stuart Hogg at full-back, the 21-year-old will not have faith. He doesn’t lack talent either. It is something to behold, the fearlessness of a young player determined to back his skills. You had to admire Smith’s cojones, eleven minutes into his first home start and second cap when, with two men off him, including the mighty Van der Merwe, he chose to keep the ball himself, bamboozle two covering defenders and dive home from 15 yards. out.

Resilience was another point in Scotland’s favour. They were not cowed by the natural swings of a top-level Test match. They rallied sufficiently when Australia took the lead at half-time, and again late in the game, to give themselves a good chance to win in the end. Although the breakdown was generally a mess, with penalty counts soaring, their dogs turned Australia over four times in the Scottish 22. Ritchie led the way in a fine first outing as captain.

Scotland Australia lineout lineout
Scotland’s line-out malfunctioned against the Wallabies. (Photo by Getty Images)

But when the playoffs came, it was the kick on everyone’s lips. Despondency etched itself on Kinghorn’s face. The agony surrounding a Murrayfield that had been strangely lukewarm for long periods. Not a gimme by any means, but a goal you’d expect your international kicker to play.

“He had an outstanding game and he missed one kick. “We had opportunities to win the game before that, so it shouldn’t have gone down,” Ritchie said.

“He’s pretty down,” Townsend continued. – The technical side is the key. You can’t think of a kick that doesn’t go over in the last minute any differently than one that doesn’t go over in the first minute or in practice.

“It’s easy to say, but next time, what technical thing do you need to work on? For him, it’s going to hurt. It’s sport, the width of a post determines whether you win or lose sometimes.”

A game of inches. While Kinghorn went up at Murrayfield, Russell dazzled again in the top 14. Brive, this time. Twenty-three points from the tee to follow the 18 against Montpellier, including two late penalties from distance, and three try assists. The Townsend-Russell sideshow will rumble on for a long time to come. With Vern Cotter and Fiji in town next weekend, Scotland need to fire again.

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