ARE Scotland's players the Rottweilers of world rugby or the pussycats?
Are they more sinners than sinned against? Scott Johnson's team have finished on the wrong end of the penalty count in every RBS 6 Nations game they have played this season, and questions have to be asked not only of their discipline, but of their inability to milk a few favours from referees as well.
Normally, there is a rough balance between the number of penalties a team give away and the number they are awarded. Obviously, a side who are struggling, perhaps defending for long periods, will tend to infringe more often, but difference is generally not huge. That has been the pattern for most of the teams at the Six Nations this season. But not Scotland.
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Over four games, they have been penalised 51 times, while a paltry 24 penalties have been awarded in their favour. The respective totals for winless Italy are 42 and 40. By some distance, Scotland have emerged as both the worst offenders and the side least likely to have decisions go their way. Quite the double whammy.
The consequences of that pattern were maddeningly clear against France at Murrayfield last Saturday. By every conventional measure Scotland should have been running with it on the scoreboard. They had slaughtered France in the lineout, and gained a significant edge in the scrum; they had made far fewer errors and were 2-1 in front on the try count.
And still they lost. Why? Firstly, they allowed France to hang on to their coat-tails by giving Maxime Machenaud a succession of penalty opportunities early in the game. And then, in the critical final stages, they infringed twice: when Ryan Wilson failed to release the ball and then when Tim Swinson hung on to Alexandre Flanquart in a tackle. Jean-Marc Doussain kicked the winning penalty, and Scotland lost a match they should have won.
France prevailed 19-17 but in penalty terms were much further ahead at 13-5. Against Ireland, the offence count against Scotland was 11-7; against England 16-7; and against Italy 11-5. There is clearly a pattern. Just as clearly, it is undermining Scotland. "It's the same penalty he's given all day," groaned Chris Paterson when referee Chris Pollock pinged Swinson in that critical play against France. "Tackler not releasing."
Strictly speaking, Paterson was not quite right, but it was certainly true that the overwhelming majority of Scottish offences were committed in the tackle/post-tackle area, and that was the case in all four games.
They are firmly established as the championship's bad boys and travel to play Wales in Cardiff on Saturday in the knowledge their reputation has probably preceded them.
Jerome Garces, the French referee who will be in charge, is among the most respected officials in the game and it is safe to assume the pattern of Scottish jiggery-pokery to date has not escaped his notice.
Kelly Brown was asked yesterday if it concerns him that his side might be marked men now, that officials almost expect them to overstep the mark? "That's not for me to comment on," the Scotland captain said. "That is someone else's opinion. What we can do is look at ourselves and put a real emphasis on discipline on Saturday. In general, over the course of the championship we have conceded far too many penalties and our discipline is something we have really focused on this week."
So why do Scotland have such a clear lead in the Six Nations league of shame? Are they naive? Are they sloppy? Are they rubbish at covering up their indiscretions and at making sure the referee knows what mischief the other lot are up to?
Maybe all of the above. But Brown believes over-exuberance has been a factor as well. "In the past we have been so enthusiastic to make a positive impact that at times we have been penalised for it," he said.
Rugby is a game of fine margins, where different officials apply leeway differently. Scott Johnson's dossiers on referees are as thick as those he keeps on opposition teams but Brown accepts caution must now be the watchword. There is no point grappling for the ball if the likeliest outcome is a penalty against.
"It is something we have spoken about," he said. "If it is a 50-50 call then I think we should just leave it, although that's not to say we are going to sit back."
The one team other than Scotland who have a wide disparity in their for and against try count are Ireland, who are massively in credit at 47-27.
Hardly surprising the title is within their grasp but those figures also bring to mind the astonishing number of international whistlers the Emerald Isle has produced in recent times, while it is 12 years since a Scot refereed a major international. If our players are so poor at playing the referee, and the Irish appear to be the masters of the art, that under-representation might not be just a coincidence.