|Hosts: France Dates: 8 September to 28 October|
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Scotland were expecting some brutality from the Tongan bruisers in Nice and they were probably steeled for some other stuff – some stuff that careered over the line between acceptable physicality and reckless ferocity.
Tonga had one yellow card upgraded to red in the bunker – Vaea Fifita’s brainless shoulder charge on a prone Finn Russell on the floor – and one yellow that inexplicably stayed yellow – a horrible Afusipa Taumoepeau shoulder to the head of Jamie Ritchie, which took the Scotland captain out of the game just after the half-hour and one that will keep him out of the Romania game next week, too.
Ritchie failed his head injury assessment. He’s had more than five concussions in his career so he’s going to be stood down for 12 days now. All going well, he’ll be back for the denouement with Ireland next month, but only just.
Gregor Townsend kept a lid on his fury in the aftermath but he landed a few blows all the same. All of them delivered with precision to the officials on the pitch, their back-up in the TMO tower and the referees in the bunker, a secret society of anonymous characters whose identity is kept private by World Rugby, supposedly for fear of reprisals from unhappy supporters.
Transparency wouldn’t go amiss in the governing body. Apparently, the reason Tongan wing was allowed back on to the field after his spell in the bin was that Ritchie had dipped his height just before impact. A risible defence of the indefensible.
In the bunker, the hush-hush officials have access to multiple television angles, Hawk-Eye split-screen technology and a space-age capacity to zoom in on particular incidents. Even allowing for all of that, they’ve come up with some odd calls at this World Cup and Taumoepeau was the latest one.
Townsend thought Jesse Kriel should have walked in the opening minutes of the Springbok game for colliding with Jack Dempsey and he thought that Taumoepeau should have gone, too. And he should. And in a game of relentless attrition perhaps one or two others should have exited along with him.
Tonga were fighting for their lives in this group but some of the no-arms hits and high shots betrayed a side with a lawless bent. The Test was ugly and imperfect but the bottom line is that Scotland won with a bonus point and suffered only one casualty when it might have been more.
Scottish supporters were everywhere in Nice. All shapes and sizes and ages. They made a fair old racket along the way and good on them. Saturday’s night victory for Ireland over South Africa was not what they wanted. It was like a kick to the solar plexus of their team’s chances of progressing, but they were here with their noise and their colour at Stade de Nice. They made their presence felt.
Townsend gave them a special mention. He also had a little glancing blow in the direction of those who are presuming that Scotland are already a beaten docket in Pool B. He said that he’d been reading about Ireland playing New Zealand and South Africa playing France in the quarter-final and he gently reminded folk that his team is still here and still fighting.
There was a mature reaction to what happened against Tonga. Seven tries, on the face of it, was a good return. Ireland only scored one more than that against Toutai Kefu’s team.
But it was flawed and neither Townsend nor Finn Russell were hiding from that. Scotland left three, four or five tries out there with clumsy execution. Russell put it as high as six.
They became ragged around the middle of the second half; a crooked lineout throw, a turnover on the floor, a knock-on at another lineout, another knock-on after a promising attack. It was messy.
None of that had a material impact on the game, but everything will be seen through a green prism now, every facet of Scotland’s game will be pored over with one issue in mind – is this kind of thing good enough to take Ireland to the wire?
Russell said what was delivered against Tonga wouldn’t be. More than once the fly-half said that his team will need to be better and will have to be harder on themselves in the coming weeks.
What awaits them – not against Romania in Lille on Saturday but against Ireland in Paris a week later – is a rugby Everest.
Scotland’s attack will need to be a whole lot sharper, their lineout more accurate, their error-count lower, their intensity higher, not for pockets of the game but for the entire thing.
Scotland managed to hit a lot of those marks for 40 minutes in the last Six Nations contest in Edinburgh. Add another 40 on top and they have a chance.
The superstitious might be cowering right now, though. Dave Cherry fell down the stairs and took himself out of the World Cup. Stuart McInally, his replacement, damaged his neck in a training session during the week and he, too, is now out of the tournament.
Sitting one cap short of a half century, McInally had a dream dashed when he was left out of the original squad, then a dream realised when he was called up, then a dream dashed again when he got injured. He’s now an ex-rugby player. Retirement has arrived. His former teammates made a presentation to him in the dressing room in Nice and, by all accounts, it was emotional.
Ritchie is now going through the return to play protocols. This is tough. Resilience is required. A first step was taken against Tonga, though. Far from foot-perfect, but it’s taken them in the right direction.
In a week’s time Scotland will be on 10 points and standing at the foothills of a mountain. It ain’t over until it’s over.