THREE miscued penalties during the first half and a handful of unforced errors at key moments after the break let the Australians off the hook at the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford tonight, and consigned Scotland to a seventh place play-off in the Junior World Cup against Wales on Saturday afternoon. There is bound to be a huge feeling of frustration within the camp at allowing this one slip through their fingers, and lessons will surely be learned, but ultimately the players will be able to look back at the experience with a huge sense of pride at the effort and courage exhibited.
Scotland finished eighth in this tournament last year but this campaign is the first time they have managed to win two pool matches meaning that, regardless of what happens on Saturday, this will be regarded as a new high-water mark for the team. That is unlikely to be a consideration amongst the coaching team and players, however, as they look to finish their season on a high.
Much will depend on how the squad shape up this week. They had already lost six frontline players to injury before a ball was kicked in this game, and now face the threat of losing two of their most experienced and influential performers. Blair Kinghorn came off with a painful dead leg in the first half, while Jamie Ritchie went for a head injury assessment towards the end.
Head coach John Dalziel stated afterwards that the crutches being sported by Kinghorn after the final whistle were precautionary, but did suggest that some changes to his line-up were inevitable.
“There is going to be a couple of knocks and bangs, and some of those guys have played four games in a row now. I thought Jamie Ritchie and Tom Galbraith were absolutely outstanding, especially given how much rugby they have played. They talked about filling the jersey and they definitely did that. There will be other guys coming in now – guys like Alex Craig and Charlie Shiel, who have really made an impact from the bench and grown through the tournament, and I think they are ready now and fresh to go,” he said.
Turning his attention to the match just finished, Dalziel was clearly torn between chest-bursting pride and gut-wrenching frustration at what he had just witnessed.
“The game was there for the taking for long, long periods. As we got towards the sixty minute mark we were five points ahead with a real chance to put Australia away – they were on the ropes big time – but we just got a bit inaccurate and we made three unforced errors which gave them three separate opportunities to escape, and on the third occasion they went the length and scored. So we went from having the opportunity to take a twelve point lead to giving them a two point lead – which is a massive fourteen point turnaround,” he lamented.
“Australia really got some belief from that and started to find a bit of space, and after the defensive effort in the first half we really began to struggle. The defence was rock solid all day, but eventually soaking up all that pressure takes its toll.”
“But we even had another opportunity after that, and there was another error, so that’s four times we had the chance to do something and we let it slip past us. It’s something we are going to have to really look at tomorrow. It’s the thing we are going to look back at and regret, because that is where the game was one or lost.”
“It was some of the best rugby I have seen from this group against a really top physical team – we took it to them in defence and some of our attack was great. It’s just a wee bit more consistency we’re looking for,” he added.
Dalziel insisted that those missed opportunities in the second half are a bigger regret than the three miscued penalties shared between Adam Hastings and Hugh Fraser before the break, but there is no doubting how significant those nine points could have been at a crucial stage in the match. With Scott Cumming barging over just three minutes after the interval, Scotland might have found themselves 28-14 ahead – which would have given the game a whole different dynamic.
They would, at least, have had a fighting chance of holding on for the win when their energy levels started to plummet during the last twenty minutes.
Australia grabbed an early lead when tight-head prop Tyrel Lomax barged over in the second minute, but Scotland bounced back almost immediately through Hugh Fraser,with a classic sniping scrum-half try; and the boys in blue then grabbed the lead when Robbie Nairn scooped up the ball after it squirted out the side of an Australian ruck and darted home unopposed from 40 yards.
Australia turned down a very kickable penalty after a collapsed scrum under the shadow of the posts and they got their reward several phases later when centre Sione Tuipolotu slid over to set up an easy conversion for Mack Mason, which gave the Wallabies a two point lead.
Scotland might have been better following their opponents’ example, because the three penalties they missed during the remainder of the first half is the kind of carelessness which rarely goes unpunished at this level.
Mason fumbled the ball behind his own line in the opening minute of the second half and will count himself rather lucky that the TMO ruled that Lewis Anderson did not get his hand to the loose ball first, but the Scots kept the pressure on and got their reward when Cummings bashed his way over two minutes later.
The Scots continued to build pressure, but were derailed when a Zander Fagerson fumble near the opposition 22 was ruthlessly punished by a searing Australian counter-attack which ended with Tuipolotu grabbing his second try of the evening, to put his team back in front.
The gap was only two points but it seemed a long way back for the clearly exhausted Scots, and the size of the challenge grew exponentially in the 68th minute when Liam Wright went over for Australia’s fourth try after a period of unrelenting pressure. And Jordan Jackson-Hope scampered over in the dying minutes to kill off whatever faint hope there might have been of Scotland snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Scotland: Try: Fraser (6), Nairn (14), Cummings (43); Con: Hastings (6), Fraser (43).
Australia: Try: Lomax (2), Tuipolotu 2 (25, 56), Wright (68), Jackson-Hope (77); Con: Mason 2 (3, 26, 56, 69, 79).
Scotland: B Kinghorn (C Gray 31); R Nairn (R Nairn 69), T Galbraith, M McPhillips, B Robbins; A Hastings, H Fraser (C Shiel 70); M McCallum (D Elikington 29), L Anderson (F Renwick 73), Z Fagerson, C Hunter-Hill (A Craig 61), S Cummings (A Craig 45-48), J Ritchie (L Wynne 69), L Wynne (S Burnside 63), A Miller.
Australia: J Maddocks; C Magnay, L Jurd, S Tuipolotu (J Jackson-Hope 56), L McNamara; M Mason, J Tuttle; F Sione (R Asiata 48), J Uelese, T Lomax (S Vui 69), L Lealaiaulolo-Tui (A Scott-Young 45), I Rodda, R Leota (H Hockings 71), L Wright, M Jones.
Yellow card: Lealaiaulolo-Tui (30)
Referee: C Evans (Wales)
Man-of-the-Match: The powerful Sione Tuipolotu provided a focal point in midfield.