The Six Nations Championship has been compressed into seven weeks this season, but on the evidence of yesterday's record defeat it is likely to feel longer rather than shorter. - Much longer.
Scotland's 36-6 loss to Ireland was not only comprehensive in itself, it also highlighted problems which were not of the opposition's making. As a result, it was impossible to leave Murrayfield without a feeling of foreboding.
France are Scotland's next opponents, and, while they too lost their opening game, they did enough to suggest they will be, at the very least, a serious threat at the Stade de France on Sunday. The trip to Paris is, after Twickenham, the most daunting away fixture for the Scots in recent years, and if Ian McGeechan's side are to upset the odds, as they did in 1995 and 1999, they will have to make some effective running repairs at desperately short notice.
"It's probably an advantage for us, having back-to-back games," the coach asserted after witnessing his team's biggest home defeat by the Irish. Hypothetically that is true enough, as all teams prefer to have the earliest possible opportunity to put a poor result behind them. It would be more realistic, however, to suggest that the shortcomings Scotland showed yesterday will require more than a week to rectify.
The most positive thing to emerge from the match was that McGeechan's team created genuine try-scoring chances: the most negative, that they failed to turn any of them into points. The Irish defence must take some credit for that, of course, but it is not as if France are likely to be any weaker in that department; and, more worryingly, even when that defence was posted missing, Scotland still contrived to make a mess of things.
The first real opening came in the first 30 seconds, when a charge-down by Bryan Redpath saw the ball spin deceptively into the Irish in-goal area. Stuart Grimes and Andrew Mower jumped for the ball, but the latter knocked on and the chance was lost. It may have been no more than a 50-50 chance, but, at this level, these are the ones that can make the difference.
The opportunity that was spurned in the closing minutes of the first half, by contrast, was one in which the odds were stacked in the home side's favour. Scotland had a 4-1 overlap down the left, and could have passed the ball down the line and still had time and space in which to score cleanly: instead, Brendan Laney sent a looping pass out beyond the last man, Gordon Bulloch, and the momentum was lost. Ireland were 13-0 up by then, and threatening to kill the game off.
The Scots had to come up with something, and they did in the first 15 minutes of the second period, running well, recycling composedly, and consistently threatening the Irish line, but, crucially, never crossing it.
Gordon Ross's two penalties came in that spell of pressure, yet as the game entered its concluding quarter Scotland were still 16-6 down, their best efforts having been repulsed. A penalty from the impeccable David Humphreys further stretched the Irish lead, and then a lapse of concentration as the ball was left unguarded at the back of a ruck let Geordan Murphy to score a breakaway try which killed the contest.
Brian O'Driscoll was named Man of the Match, and surely McGeechan would give his right arm just now to have someone with the centre's game-breaking ability. But it would be a grave mistake to regard Ireland as 14 donkeys led by this Lion, as they have a sharpness throughout their back division - not to mention their back row - that is in stark contrast to the pedestrian approach too often shown by Scotland.
What makes matters worse for McGeechan - and bodes badly for the rest of the season - is the lack of alternatives. He brought Gregor Townsend on for Ross, as well as giving Gavin Kerr a debut by putting him on for Bruce Douglas, but by the time they came on neither substitute was in a position to do anything about the result.
Of the seven replacements, in fact, the one you would tip to make the biggest impact in the right circumstances is Mike Blair. And, as Blair plays in the same position as the captain, Bryan Redpath, he is probably going to spend most of the season on the bench. In other words, Scotland have limited resources, and if they are to get anywhere in the immediate future they will have to make the most of those resources, just as they must make the most of what few try-scoring chances come their way.
Looking on the bright side, there are certain areas of their game which they shall surely be able to improve over the coming days, the most noticeable of them being the lineout. Ireland successfully disrupted the first three or four Scots throws, and even once Gordon Bulloch and his jumpers got on the same wavelength there was no sign of the imperiousness which, at his best, a world-class competitor such as Scott Murray brings to his game.
Option-taking is another area in which better can be expected. It was obvious early on that Scotland would employ a kicking game, and then, lest they become too predictable, Ross started passing down the line instead. That was fine in principle, but there was one open-play attack late in the first half in which, with the full-back out of position, there was a need for a chip ahead: instead, alas, Ross passed inside and the move was soon smothered.
To pull off a surprise victory in Paris, everything will need to go right for Scotland. The same goes for next month's match at Twickenham. If both those games are lost, all we will be left with is our own Three Nations tournament for the also-rans. And home wins over Italy and Wales will not even represent an advance over last season, when Scotland beat both of them away.
(Stuart Bathgate - Chief Sports Writer, The Scotsman).