The Scots in Nice likely braced themselves for some rough play from the Tongan bruisers, play that veered dangerously close to crossing the line between respectable physicality and reckless violence.
Tonga had one yellow card upgraded to red in the bunker (Vaea Fifita’s mindless shoulder charge on a prone Finn Russell on the floor) and one yellow card that inexplicably stayed yellow (Afusipa Taumoepeau’s horrible shoulder to the head of Jamie Ritchie, which took the Scotland captain out of the game shortly after the half-hour and will keep him out of the Romania game next week).
The evaluation of Ritchie’s head injuries was unsuccessful. He’s been sidelined for 12 days because he’s had more than five concussions over the course of his career. If all goes as planned, he’ll be back in time for the climactic showdown with Ireland next month.
In the aftermath, Gregor Townsend managed to contain his rage long enough to land a few hits. All of them supplied precisely to the officials on the field, their backup in the TMO tower, and the referees in the bunker, an anonymous society whose identity is kept secret by World Rugby ostensibly out of fear of reprisals from dissatisfied fans.
Having more openness in the government would be beneficial. The Tongan wing was reinstated to the pitch after serving a suspension because Ritchie had lowered his head before the collision. Attempting to defend the unjustifiable with hilarity.
The secretive officials in the bunker can monitor events from every angle thanks to the split-screen technology and space-age zoom capabilities. Taumoepeau was the latest in a string of strange decisions made by the referees at this World Cup, even taking all of that into account.
Townsend felt that Jesse Kriel and Taumoepeau should have been sent off in the first minutes of the Springbok game for their collision with Jack Dempsey. True, he should. And in a game of constant attrition, maybe another player or two should have left with him.
Some of the no-arms hits and high shots indicated a side with a lawless bent, but the Tonga were fighting for their lives anyway. Despite the nasty and flawed nature of the Test, Scotland came out on top with a bonus point victory and only one injury.
The city of Nice was overrun with Scots fans. Everyone, of every age and every size. They made a lot of noise on the way, and that’s to their credit. Ireland’s win over South Africa on Saturday night was not what the visitors had hoped for. its presence, with all its noise and color, at Stade de Nice was like a blow to the solar plexus of their team’s prospects of advancing. There was no mistaking their presence.
Townsend specifically mentioned them. He also delivered a sideways jab at the people who think Scotland are doomed to fail in Pool B. He mentioned that he had been reading about the quarterfinal matches between Ireland and New Zealand and South Africa and France and wanted to remind everyone that his team was still alive and well.
The team’s response to the incident against Tonga showed maturity. On the surface, seven attempts appears to be a successful rate. Against Toutai Kefu’s squad, Ireland scored just twice as many goals.
But Townsend and Finn Russell weren’t trying to cover up the fact that it was defective. Scotland made three, four, or five attempts that they botched. Russell estimated a maximum of six.
In the middle of the second half, they started to look sloppy, with a knock-on in a lineout, a turnover on the floor, and another knock-on after a promising assault. It created a mess.
None of that mattered in the slightest, but now everyone will be looking at the game through a green lens, analyzing every aspect of Scotland’s performance to determine if it is good enough to push Ireland to the brink.
Russell predicted that the punishment meted out to Tonga would not be permanent. The fly-half has stressed on multiple occasions that his side needs to improve and be tougher on themselves in the upcoming weeks.
A rugby Everest awaits them not this Saturday against Romania in Lille, but next Saturday against Ireland in Paris.
Scotland needs to improve greatly in all aspects of their attack and lineout and reduce their error rate and increase their energy throughout the entire match.
In the recent Six Nations match in Edinburgh, Scotland managed to hit many of those marks for the first 40 minutes. They need an extra 40 men to have any chance.
However, the superstitious among us may be shrinking in fear. Dave Cherry was eliminated from the World Cup when he slipped and went down the steps. His replacement, Stuart McInally, also had to withdraw from the competition after he injured his neck in a training session earlier in the week.
McInally, who is just one cap away from a half-century, had a dream crushed when he wasn’t included in the original squad, fulfilled when he was called up, then crushed once more when he was injured. He has retired from rugby. It’s finally time to retire. In Nice, his old teammates presented a touching presentation to him in the locker room.
Ritchie is currently undergoing return to play procedures. As you may imagine, this is challenging. You need to be resilient. Nonetheless, action was taken against Tonga. It wasn’t quite a step in the right direction, but it was a step.
Scotland will be on 10 points and at the base of a mountain in one week. Until it’s over, it ain’t over.