SCOTLAND'S pain at plummeting out the World Cup at the end of the pool stage surely gave way to a sense of relief for those of us who witnessed New Zealand’s ferocious and thoroughly ruthless dismantling of Ireland in Tokyo.

Had Gregor Townsend’s team somehow managed to get a result against host nation Japan last Sunday, then it would have been them in the firing line as the All Blacks produced their best all-round performance since the last World Cup to secure a completely one-sided 46-14 quarter-final victory over an Ireland team which, lest we forget, hammered Scotland 27-3 on the opening weekend of this tournament.

Scotland couldn’t cope with Ireland’s physicality and intensity four weeks ago and they couldn’t deal with Japan pace and accuracy last weekend, so can you imagine how gruesome it could have been if they had come up against a New Zealand side who played with a level of relentless power and pace which has rarely been seen on a rugby field before?

HeraldScotland:

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As a side note, with England blowing Australia away in the first of yesterday’s quarter-finals, we can safely say that having an extra week to prepare for such vital matches certainly didn’t do Eddie Jones’ or Steve Hansen’s teams any harm. Yet it is Scottish Rugby which ended up in the dock this week for allegedly bringing the game into disrepute by arguing that all matches at a World Cup should be decided on the field of play. Go figure!

But we shouldn’t let that detract from the all-round brilliance of New Zealand’s performance yesterday.

In the immediate aftermath of the match, it was suggested that Ireland failed to perform at their best. This is an over-simplified diagnosis. Just as Scotland failed to perform in their game against Ireland, much of that was down to the pressure exerted by the opponents. People point to ‘unforced errors’ but the vast majority of the time these mistakes are a result of a team being so harassed that their judgement and execution suffers.

The knee-jerk reactions to Scotland’s World Cup demise have been predictable. Gregor Townsend as head coach of the national team has been the focus of much of the recrimination. But, while this World Cup will not go down as the finest moment of his coaching career, it is time to take a breath and recognise that expectations level were unrealistically high.

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Let’s remember that Ireland had beaten New Zealand twice in the last three meetings between the two countries before yesterday. It was a side packed full of Grand Slammers and Lions stalwarts – including Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong, who were crucial to the touring side’s series draw against the All Blacks two years ago. The consensus is that Joe Schmidt’s team peaked a year too early, and that might be the case, but there was still an awful lot of rugby intelligence and big match experience in that side – far more than Townsend had at his disposal (no Lions caps, no Grand Slammers and not even any experience of playing past the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup).

There is also a deeper, more fundamental, issue which this latest set-back for the Scotland team will hopefully bring into sharper focus.

While all eyes were trained on Japan, the SRU finally released some of the data gathered by the new player registration system which was launched at the start of last season. The headline figure was that 36,207 people registered to play the game during 2018-19, with just under a third of that number counted as adult males. However, a more detailed breakdown was not made available and sensible calculations indicate that the number of regular adult male players is somewhere between three and four thousand – highlighting just how much of a minority sport rugby is in this country.

On the basis that the health of the game should not be based purely on the number of adult males but also the number of youngsters coming through the ranks as well, it is worth comparing that 36,207 figure with other nations. That puts Scotland 14th in the world, just ahead of Fiji. South Africa leads the way with over 650,000 registered players. France, England, New Zealand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Argentina, USA, Australia, Italy, Malaysia, Wales and Kenya are all apparently ahead of Scotland.

Although the full reliability of these figures is questionable, it does help demonstrate the size of the challenge Scotland faces to continue being a self-sustaining Tier One nation. 

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Sheila Begbie, as Director of Domestic Rugby for the SRU, is generally regarded as a force for positive change in the grassroots game, and has spent much of her two-and-a-bit years in the job trying to establish a framework which will halt the decline in player numbers which anyone involved at ground level will tell you has reached critical stage.

Losing ‘social’ players now might not impact the Scotland team today or even tomorrow, but the long term consequences are frightening. Grassroots clubs are the nurseries from which our next generation of players will emerge. ‘Social’ players are the coaches which will provide that first step on the path. 

The logic is simple. The broader the base, the taller we can build the pyramid.

The SRU’s investment in ‘club support and development’ has stagnated at around five percent of turnover during the last decade. That needs to change. At the moment, Begbie is fighting the battle with one hand tied behind her back.