Expectation to underachievement – How Scotland came up short in France

Expectation to underachievement – How Scotland came up short in France

Scotland suffered a demoralising pool-stage exit from the World Cup after being unable to get the big win they needed against Ireland.

Here, we look back at how the tournament unfolded for Gregor Townsend’s side.


Everything seemed possible for the Scots when they first touched down in sun-drenched Nice just over five weeks ago, fresh from an encouraging summer in which they had produced two rousing displays against France and beaten Italy and Georgia to cement their status as the fifth-ranked team in the world. At their welcome ceremony their former player John Jeffrey – in his guise as World Rugby’s vice-chair – told everyone in attendance “this is without doubt the best ever Scotland team to take the field”


After all the anticipation and pre-tournament optimism, Scotland fell flat in their opener in Marseille, failing to land a meaningful blow as defending champions South Africa stifled the life out of them. Losing 18-3, it was the Scots’ lowest-scoring outing since the opening game of the previous World Cup.


The Scots had a full two weeks to lick their wounds following their demoralising start. With no game on the second weekend of the tournament, the players were given a few days’ downtime with family immediately after the South Africa loss. Even when not in action, however, the Scots’ qualification hopes suffered a further blow as Ireland defeated the Springboks.


One of the most notable stories of that week was hooker Dave Cherry’s withdrawal from the squad after suffering concussion when falling on stairs on the way to his bedroom following a team day off. Cherry, 32, had made his World Cup debut as a substitute against South Africa the previous day. The Edinburgh forward at least had the consolation of going home to welcome his baby daughter into the world later in the month.


Stuart McInally became one of the big stories of Scotland’s World Cup without actually getting to see a minute’s action. The 33-year-old hooker announced in April he would be retiring after the tournament. He was named in the provisional 41-man squad in May, then cut from the final 33 in August, called out to France as cover when Ewan Ashman suffered concussion before the Boks game and then flew home when his fellow hooker recovered. It looked like the fairytale career swansong was on when McInally – on 49 caps – got the call to officially join the squad after Cherry’s withdrawal, but cruelly he had to pull out himself just over a week later after suffering a neck injury.


Scotland needed bonus-point wins over Tonga and Romania to keep their slim qualification hopes alive and they duly obliged with comfortable 45-17 and 84-0 victories. The two wins featured 19 tries for the Scots, with five of them scored by Darcy Graham, who climbed to joint second on the national team’s all-time try-scoring list with 24, just three shy of record-holder Stuart Hogg.


After the misfortune of his fellow hookers Cherry and McInally, 30-year-old Johnny Matthews – effectively the sixth-choice in his position – was called up after the Tonga game, having never previously won a full cap. Just over 10 minutes after entering the fray for his debut against Romania in Lille, the Glasgow forward bolted over to mark his unlikely international bow by scoring the Scots’ 10th try of the match.


Those triumphs over Tonga and Romania helped revive Scottish morale and sparked hope of pulling off a shock win over Ireland to qualify for the quarter-finals. The Scots needed to beat the world’s number one team – whom they had not defeated since 2017 – either with a bonus point or by denying their opponents a losing bonus. All the pre-match talk of permutations was rendered pointless, however, as the Irish raced into a 36-0 lead. Scotland rallied to make the scoreline a more respectable 36-14, but the damage was done.


Ultimately – as a result of the pool draw being made almost three years ago – Scotland were undone by sharing a group with the two nations who began this tournament as the top-ranked pair in the world, Ireland and South Africa. Over the past year the Scots have beaten each of the four sides who reached the quarter-finals in the opposite side of a lop-sided draw – England, Fiji, Wales and Argentina – but, despite the undoubted progress they have made in recent years, they remain a considerable way short of the level of the game’s four current heavyweights.

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