So close to glory … talking points from an electrifying night

Image: ©Fotosport/David Gibson

by ALAN LORIMER with additional reporting from THE OFFSIDE LINE

WHOEVER invented the Mexican Wave certainly has a lot to answer for. Last week, during Scotland’s match against Samoa, this infuriating manifestation of spectator boredom was all too present as crowd participation at times seemed to triumph over interest in the match. 

Dial on seven days and it was a different wave that characterised the crowd reaction. It was an electrical wave that sent a charge through a packed Murrayfield as Scotland’s heroes battled against the best team in world rugby and very nearly caused a global upset.

You could feel the high voltage tension in the atmosphere from beginning to end in a contest of high drama. Even the expected impact of the Haka was diminished by the vocal efforts of the massive crowd, pumped up by a level of anticipation (and perhaps fear) not seen at Murrayfield since the 1990 Grand Slam game against England.

Every time Scotland broke through, the electricity in the stadium crackled and every time that man Stuart Hogg raced past a New Zealand opponent you could feel a vacuum being created as the crowd took a collective intake of breath. It was theatre at its best, as the Scotland coach Gregor Townsend confirmed in the post-match press conference.

“This was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever experienced. It was a great Test match. It was intense and very competitive,” he said.

And so different from the Samoa game.  A number of spectators described their feelings after the match against the Pacific islanders as ‘flat’. The only thing flat about the New Zealand game was the All Blacks alignment in attack.

Flat? Stand-off Beauden Barrett was almost on the gain-line when he collected his scrum half’s pass; his centres were only inches behind him.  And that essentially accounted for the second and third New Zealand tries.

As for first New Zealand try by Codie Taylor, it was scored when Alex Dunbar was receiving on-field attention for an injury, which resulted in the Glasgow Warrior being forced out of the game. It was unfortunate timing because Dunbar has become a very good organiser in defence quite apart from being able to deliver telling tackles.

Whether New Zealand noted that Scotland had a man missing from their defensive line is not something we will ever learn but one does wonder if Dunbar had not been injured would the try have been scored?

And would the second and third tries have come as easily if the home number 12 had still been there driving on Scotland’s phenomenal line-speed to ensure that Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty had Scottish jerseys suffocating them before they could sniff a chance to work their magic.

Of course, you can ‘if’ and ‘but’ about any match and it will get you nowhere. Only a bit frustrated. What the narrow defeat does do, however, is make the next meeting with New Zealand all the more interesting. Bring it on, as they say.

In the meantime, here are a few talking points from the game, put together by The Offside Line team, to cogitate over –

  • Scotland’s line-speed was outstanding so full credit to defence coach Matt Taylor, who maybe wasn’t as haunted by last week’s horror show against Samoa as we all thought, knowing that his players would be much better in the big one.
  • Ball retention was excellent with John Barclay having a monstrous game after disappointing performance against Samoa.
  • There is a lot of jargon in modern rugby but the old virtues still have serious currency and this was [very nearly] a triumph for guts and self-belief.
  • The atmosphere was phenomenal – a fitting tribute to Doddie.
  • Vern Cotter’s footprint was all over Murrayfield on Saturday – but Townsend has probably done enough in the short time he has been in charge to justify change. Could Scott Johnson know more about rugby than is generally perceived?
  • Stuart Hogg is world class.
  • The All Blacks gave a lesson in being street-wise and managed the referee well to dissipate time on their yellow cards. They play on the edge all the time and, perhaps, get away with a lot of marginal stuff because of who they are.
  • The referee got it wrong when he thought Seymour had carried ball over his own line – which could have been very costly had the Scottish scrum not stacked up in their moment of reckoning.
  • The Scottish scrum was not so clever with ten minutes to go, when the Scots opted to lock horn under the posts and go for a seven-pointer rather than take three easy points with the boot. With a front-row of Jamie Bhatti, Stuart McInally and Simon Berghan, they were pulverised by seven All Blacks [Wyatt Crockett was in the sin-bin] pulverised the home eight and conceded a penalty which allowed New Zealand to clear their lines. Berghan was blown away by Kane Hames in that instance.
  • Converting territory and pressure into points was always going to be a problem. The drop-goal should be the easiest three points in the book, and there was a period around the 30-minute mark when it was there for the taking, but they didn’t go for it until the moment had passed, by which point they were right on the edge of Finn Russell’s range.
  • Box-kicks did not really work – nor were they likely to because NZ are good at defending them – so why not send up a few bombs from stand-off as NZ did effectively?
  • Scotland’s injury crisis looks more and more like a blessing in disguise in the medium to long term, with Darryl Marfo and Luke Hamilton getting unexpected chances to demonstrate their previously unrecognised international credentials at the highest level; while Stuart McInally, Ben Toolis,  Cornell Du Preez and Lee Jones have also made great cases for usurping the previously established order.
  • Australia next week is a whole new ball game – they will be hurting after the way things went at Twickenham and it will be a real challenge for Scotland to replicate Saturday’s intensity.
  • The prognosis for Zander Fagerson, Hamish Watson, Luke Hamilton and Alex Dunbar is going to be crucial. Unless Townsend has a few more rabbits to pull out of his metaphorical hat, these are players who are going to be very hard to replace given the strain that the squad is already under.
About Alan Lorimer 369 Articles
Scotland rugby correspondent for The Times for six years and subsequently contributed to Sunday Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and Reuters. Worked in Radio for BBC. Alan is Scottish rugby journalism's leading voice when it comes to youth and schools rugby.