ALI PRICE celebrated his long awaited international debut by sparking the sweeping attack which belatedly added the gloss to this victory. A rampant first half performance provided the groundwork for the final result, but a distinctly second rate showing after the break ran the risk of sending home the majority of the 15,401 crowd at Rugby Park feeling like they had only got half a match worth of entertainment for their ticket price.
The final outcome was never really in doubt, but it wasn’t much fun from a Scottish perspective for the 35 minutes between Hamish Watson’s try at the start of the second half, and that final score which was sparked by a quick tap and electrifying break from Price and finished off in majestic fashion by man-of-the-match Stuart Hogg.
There was a small but admirably vocal Georgian element populating the stands, and they will feel that the final score does not do their heroes justice. They may have a point. The Eastern Europeans were wholeheartedly committed, as we expected, and what they lacked in guile they made up for in power at the pit-face once they started to play to their strengths after the break. They were not good enough to win this game, but with a bit more accuracy to go with their raw aggression they could easily have run the Scots much closer than 27 points.
Scotland’s restart receipt has been a bug bear for some time now, but they looked far more assured of themselves in this match, with Jonny Gray laying down an early maker when he was hoisted high into the Ayrshire sky to cleanly collect the kick-off. The scrum stood up well at the first set-piece, and Tommy Seymour was given his first glimpse of space on the left wing (although not enough to really hurt the Georgians) after Alex Dunbar had punched a useful hole in midfield. It was all very positive, and therefore quite hard to fathom when the hosts found themselves five points behind after just four minutes of play.
The seed of Scotland’s undoing in this instance was a penalty conceded by Zander Fagerson for holding onto the ball on the deck under pressure from Mamuka Gorgodze inside Georgia’s half. A long penalty was sent downfield to give the Georgian’s the opportunity to build a line-out drive, which seemed to be going nowhere until the ball squirted out the side and Tommy Seymour got caught somewhere between guarding the edge of the maul (for some reason) and going for the loose possession. Visiting scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze scooped up and could hardly believe his luck as he darted home unchallenged from 15 yards out.
If Seymour had been slightly dozy in the concession of that early score, he made an almost immediate amends when outpacing Georgia’s flatfooted defence to ground Hogg’s delicate chip ahead just before it bounced over the dead-ball line.
Laidlaw nailed the conversion from the left touchline, then helped himself to a rather easier two points when referee Matthew Carley awarded a penalty try and sent second-row Konstantine Mikautadze to the sin-bin for collapsing the maul as Scotland powered a line-out drive irresistibly towards the whitewash.
Scotland had now built up a real head of steam. There was a brief pause in their progress while Merab Kvirikashvili knocked over a penalty after Finn Russell was judged to have played on the ground (it was easy to understand why the stand-off felt he wasn’t held in the tackle) before Sean Maitland jinked through three rather weak Georgian tackles for try number three.
Laidlaw and Kvirikashvili exchanged penalties and then Hogg produced one his trademark moments of magic by charging onto Russell’s flat pass, chipping ahead and reading the bounce perfectly to leave winger Alexandre Todua and Lobzhanidze grasping at shadows as he motored towards line like a high end sports car on a flat, quiet country road. Laidlaw nailed the conversion from the touchline for good measure.
The fun continued straight after the break with Hamish Watson peeling round the front of a line-out and bouncing three hapless tacklers on his way over the line, but then the wheels came off the Scottish bandwagon.
The Georgians rallied bravely, and when Alex Dunbar was penalised for obstruction five yards from his own line, there was no real mystery about what the visitors would opt for. The first scrum went down, the second one stayed up but went backwards at a rate of knots, allowing Lobzhandize to touch down at the base for an even easier score than his first.
Scotland are hoping to have WP Nel, Alasdair Dickinson and Rory Sutherland back by the Six Nations. Zander Fagerson and Alan Dell have been asked to take on an awful lot this Autumn and have stepped up heroically, but the lack of strength in depth behind them at prop is a key issue going forward. In such a physically demanding position, relying on so few players capable of doing the job is asking for trouble. There is no place to hide in the front-row – you simply cannot get by on a wing and a prayer.
Scotland couldn’t get a foothold back in the match. The penalty count against them was going through the roof. They were given a let-off when the Georgians kicked one of those penalties awarded against them into the corner too long, but then shot themselves in the foot when they sent the drop restart out on the full. The more they tried to push the agenda the more of a mess they got themselves in, typified when Dunbar fumbled an easy pass as the hosts tried to open things up in the middle of the park.
The line-out was malfunctioning, and by the final quarter the scrum was being obliterated, reaching its nadir when replacement tighthead Moray Low was sent to the sin-bin for collapsing.
The Scots were in desperate need of a flash of inspiration and having waited patiently on the bench through the last 233 minutes of rugby during this Autumn Test series, Ali Price was ready when his moment finally came. Just three minutes after taking over from skipper Greig Laidlaw, the 23-year-old seized his opportunity when tapping a quick penalty and darting past a couple of lumbering Georgian behemoths and outstripping two backs at the start of a thrilling 60 metre attack, which was finished off by the irrepressible Hogg after some good link play from Rory Hughes.
It was a moment of magic to eclipse the dreariness of the previous 33 minutes of Scotland’s performance. Large chunks of that second half should give pause for thought, but in the final reckoning the Scots still scored six tries against the twelfth best team in the world. They have finished the series with a 2-1 winning record and can look ahead to the Six Nations with optimism – so long as all the key men in key positions are fit and ready to go.
Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland (R Hughes 51), M Bennett (P Horne 62), A Dunbar, T Seymour; F Russell, G Laidlaw (A Price 73); A Dell (A Allan 55), R Ford (F Brown 51), Z Fagerson (M Low 24-32, 55), R Gray, J Gray (G Gilchrist), R Harley (J Barclay 47), H Watson, R Wilson.
Georgia: M Kvirikashvili; G Aptsiauri (B Tsiklauri 20), M Sharikadze, T Mchedlidze, A Todua; L Malaguradze, V Lobzhanidze; M Nariashvili (K Asieshvili 48), J Bregvadze (B Alkhazashvili 48), L Chilachava (D Kubriashvili 48), K Mikautadze (L Lomidze 40-47), G Nemsadze, V Kolelishvili (G Tkhilaoshvili 46), M Gorgodze, B Bitsadze (L Lomidze 51).
Scotland: Tries: Seymour, Penalty Try, Maitland, Hogg 2; Watson; Cons: Laidlaw 5; Pen: Laidlaw.
Georgia: Try: Lobzhanidze 2; Pen: Kvirikashvili 2.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 0-5; 5-5; 7-7; 12-5; 14-5; 14-8; 19-8; 21-8; 24-8; 24-11; 29-11; 31-11 (h-t) 36-11; 38-11; 38-16; 43-16.
Yellow cards –
Man-of-the-Match: Ryan Wilson showed up well with a number of big carries during an excellent first half, but Stuart Hogg scored two scintillating try and was a constant threat every time he got his hands on the ball.
Talking point: Scotland’s first choice tighthead is struggling with a neck injury, Zander Fagerson has shown he has got what it takes but is only 20-years-old so is on a steep learning curves, while Moray Low is not playing regularly at club level and he really struggled when he came on off the bench in this game. Is this enough going into a tough Six Nations campaign? Jon Welsh is doing the business at Newcastle Falcons at the moment and Stern Vern surely has his mobile number.
Image: Craig Watson www.craigwatson.co.uk