DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield
THE Scotland squad did a lap of the pitch after the final whistle so that the crowd of 50-odd thousand for this final warm-up match before the World Cup could bid them a bon voyage to France. It would have been a pretty awkward PR exercise if they had carried on during the second half in the same haphazard style of the first 40 minutes.
Fortunately, after trailing 6-0 at the break, they did tighten up to take a strangle-hold of the contest, scoring 33 unanswered points to secure a five tries to zero win – not to be sniffed at – with Duhan van der Merwe‘s brace bookending scores from Rory Darge, Jack Dempsey and Kyle Steyn.
It was not the polished all-round performance they were looking for, but the Scotland squad will recognise that the days when victories over Georgia are formality and, importantly, there appears to be no new injury concerns ahead of the team flying out to France next Sunday, ahead of their World Cup opener against South Africa in Marseilles seven days later.
The visitors took the lead through a Luka Matkava penalty, awarded against Grant Gilchrist for not rolling away on 11 minutes, and Georgia may count themselves unfortunate not to have claimed the openin try on 17 minutes when they ran back an Ollie Smith clearance with impressive intent and it took some desperate scrambling work from Smith to retrieve Demur Tapladze’s clever grubber in the Scottish in-goal area just ahead of Miriani Modebadze.
The Eastern Europeans had to settle instead for a second Matkava penalty – this time after an offside – with the game 20 minutes old.
Apart from a couple of powerful but well marshalled bursts from van der Merwe and Kyle Steyn, the Scots didn’t get close to challenging the Georgian defence, with their desire to use the width of the park undermined by some laboured passing. One telegraphed delivery from Finn Russell to WP Nel resulted in the Scottish tight-head being ignominiously being dumped on his backside after being caught man-and-ball by Matkava.
When Scotland finally managed to make it into the Georgian 22 just before the half hour mark, they huffed and puffed but made little meaningful headway, before Russell lost possession as he tried to unleash a miracle offload out of contact.
The Scotland stand-off was not the only culprit when it came to coughing up possession in contact, with Ben White losing his grasp of possession a few minutes later and Dempsey having already been penalised for holding on too long on the deck in the 10th minute.
The home side were beginning to command more possession, however, and they thought they had secured a nerve-settling first try when Russell sent a penalty to the corner, the line-out maul went nowhere, but Huw Jones made a useful dent in midfield, and a flat pass from Russell gave Steyn a sniff in the corner – but the winger, who was a late call-up in place of Darcy Graham, lost control as he stretched for the corner under pressure from opposite number Modebadze.
Skipper Jamie Ritchie being penalised for holding on after another mildly promising but ultimately toothless attack seemed like a suitably frustrating way to finish the first half.
Scotland flew out the blocks after the break and it took a last-gasp interception by Aka Tabutsadze of a Jones pass to van der Merwe to prevent what looked like a certain try on the left.
A few minutes later, the Georgian winger thought he was off on an 80-yard sprint to the line after intercepting Russell, but French referee Mathieu Raynal pulled him back for a scrum penalty which had been conceded by the visitors at the start of that attack.
Then, finally, it clicked for Scotland, with Russell angling an inch-perfect cross-kick towards van der Merwe on the left, who had a minor jungle before collecting and cantering home unchallenged for his 19th try in 31 matches.
The big South African thought he’d claimed try number 20 just two minutes later when he cruised through Georgia’s tiring defence, but he was hauled down just short and couldn’t get the ball away, so Scotland had to wait two more phases before Darge muscled over from close range.
With Russell adding both conversions, the Scottish coaching team deemed their eight-point advantage sufficient cushion with 28 minutes to go for a bench clearance, meaning there was wholesale changes in the front-row and at half-back as well as Matt Fagerson coming on for Darge in the back-row – to a huge sigh of relief from the 50-odd thousand in the stadium and the many more watching at home, because none of that quintet, which included the irreplaceable Russell, appeared to be carrying any sort of injury.
The changes certainly didn’t impact Scotland’s new-found momentum, and Dempsey battled through three tackles and stretched over the line for try number three on 58 minutes.
Ritchie was left incensed when Tabutsadze pulled him down by the shoulders as he jumped to collect Ben Healy’s cross-kick and there was a bit of grappling, bumping of heads and a half-hearted swing of a fist. The Scottish captain came perilously close to getting embroiled in a stramash he didn’t need to be in this close to the World Cup but managed to extricate himself from the situation in time to be awarded the penalty. Tabutsadze should probably have seen yellow.
Scotland refocussed and kicked to the corner to create the platform for their fourth try scored by Kyle Steyn, before a long pass from Ben Healy sent van der Merwe over for his second.
Scotland: O Smith; K Steyn, H Jones (C Harris 59), S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; F Russell (B Healy 52), B White ( G Horne 52); J Bhatti (R Sutherland, 52), D Cherry (E Ashman 52), W Nel (J Sebastian 52), S Skinner (S Cummings 59)_, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie , R Darge (M Fagerson 52), J Dempsey.
Georgia: D Niniashvili; A Tabutsadze, D Tapladze (T Jalaghonia 52), M Sharikadze, M Modebadze; L Matkava (G Kveseladze 67), V Lobzhanidze (T Abzhandadze 59); M Nariashvili (G Gogichashvili 52), S Mamukashvili (T Zamtaradze 38), B Gigashvili (G Papidze 56), L Chachanidze (S Mamamtavrishvili 52), K Mikautadze (L Jaiani 39), L Ivanishvili (G Aprasidze 74), M Gachechiladze, T Jalaghonia.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).
Scotland: Tries: van der Merwe 2, Darge, Demspey, Steyn; Cons: Russell 2, Healy 2.
Georgia: Pen: Matkava 2.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 0-3; 0-6 (h-t) 5-6; 7-6; 12-6; 14-6; 19-6; 21-6; 26-6; 28-6; 33-6.