CAN Scotland play better than they did in their 26-18 defeat by Argentina on Saturday night in Jujuy? Of course they can.

Will they do so this coming Saturday in Salta to level the three-Test series? You would not want to bet your life savings on it - and in any case, even a significant improvement may not be enough against a Pumas side who are themselves a fair bet to get better in the remaining two matches.

As well as being their first home game in nearly three years, this was Argentina’s first outing of 2022 and their debut under new coach Michael Cheika. These circumstances suggested that Scotland might well catch them cold in the first Test, but instead it was the tourists who looked rusty, falling behind to an early penalty and playing second fiddle throughout the first half.

Whatever was said at the break in the away dressing room had the desired effect, as the visitors played their best rugby of the match in the third quarter, when tries from Mark Bennett and Rory Hutchinson plus a Blair Kinghorn conversion saw them wipe out a 12-point deficit and take the score to 18-18.

After that, however, it was all Argentina. Emiliano Boffelli leaped to seize the restart and initiate a move that produced his team’s third try for Gonzalo Bertranou, then added a penalty ten minutes from time. 

Had the Edinburgh winger been on his usual form with the boot rather than missing several kicks at goal, his team would have been home and dry long before that point in proceedings. As it was, he made his class tell when it mattered most, while Scotland once again failed to maintain their game at a consistently high level.

Argentina’s first-half points came from tries by Jeronimo de la Fuente and Santiago Carreras, a Boffelli conversion and two penalties from Nicolas Sanchez 2. Two  Kinghorn penalties were Scotland’s only scores in the opening 40 .

“It’s a frustrating one,” was the verdict of outside centre Mark Bennett after his first international start since 2016. “We worked really, really hard to get ourselves back into that game.

“In the first half they applied a lot of pressure and we didn’t have any ball. In the second half we held on to it a bit better at the start and applied pressure and we got a couple of scores. Then they ended up applying pressure to us. 

“It was just silly errors that cost us. We’re better than that.

“I’m delighted to be back here, but I want to be here to win. So as much as I’m happy to be here, I’m really disappointed with the result, because we know we can be better than that.

“There were plenty of mistakes in there, and errors that we made that were under our control. So we need to tighten them up. It’s going to be a huge match on Saturday.”

In addition to pinpointing obvious errors that should be easily ironed out, Scotland can reflect on a couple of close calls that could have changed the path of the match. On another day, for example, Duhan van der Merwe would have been awarded a try two minutes into the second half instead of being judged to have failed to apply downward pressure. And if a pass from Kinghorn to Sam Johnson had not been deemed marginally forward, Scotland would have equalised at 23-23 with the conversion to come.

Both calls by referee Nic Berry were close but correct, yet there were other aspects of the official’s handling of the match which appeared to cause Gregor Townsend some concern, even if he did not mention the Australian by name. “The big thing for me was the slow nature of the match,” the Scotland coach said. 

“There was too much stop-start, too much talking while the clock was still on. If that’s the way it’s going to be over the course of the series then we’ve got to make sure that we’re better and more accurate when the ball is in play to put points on the board.

“We didn’t have much ball in the first half. The second half was a lot better, but we just didn’t kick on in the final quarter. We needed to change the momentum in that last 20 minutes.”

They did, but in Salta this coming Saturday they will also have to ensure that Argentina do not enjoy almost all of the momentum throughout the first half. If Hamish Watson is able to return after missing the first Test because of a training- ground injury, that should go some way to ensuring parity at the breakdown. But whoever plays, the whole squad will need to find a clarity of purpose that was conspicuous by its absence in the Estadio 23 de Agosto.