IT does not get much closer than this. Scotland did not just come within a score of a first-ever win over the All Blacks, they came within a few metres of it in a last attack of nerve-shredding drama.
What is more, they showed bags of character to claw their way back into the game after being 15-3 down with around an hour played. Over the previous 30 outings for this one-sided fixture, many a Scotland side has gone on to lose far more heavily from a similar position, but this one had the character and the imagination to resist the imposition of such a predictable script.
That character was in evidence from the start, which saw Gregor Townsend’s side take the lead and retain it until shortly before half-time. They showed ambition throughout, were better in just about every aspect of the game than they had been in beating Samoa a week earlier, and proved the wisdom of the head coach’s aim of playing the fastest-tempo rugby in the world. There might still be teething troubles along the way, and this match fell short of the ultimate aim from Scotland’s point of view, but it was exhilarating nonetheless.
Finn Russell opened Scotland’s account in the seventh minute, by which time they had established a dominance that they maintained throughout the first quarter. They intent and controlled aggression with which they played was excellent, and a vast improvement on their performance against Samoa, but they were let down at crucial times by avoidable errors.
Cornell du Preez dropped a pass from Stuart Hogg in good position, for example, and right on the midway point of the half Huw Jones spilled the ball close to the New Zealand line. In between those two mistakes Russell was off target with a second penalty attempt, moments before which he had nearly pulled off an interception of an Aaron Smith pass from which he would have scored. It would be harsh to put that latter attempt down as an unforced error, but the other three did fall into that category, and what is more came from incidents which could otherwise have ended in Scotland taking their score well into double figures.
They did not have much to do on the defensive side in that first quarter, but matters changed thereafter as New Zealand came on to a game, with Tommy Seymour twice committing errors that could have been expensive. First, attempting to field a clearance, he spilled a ball that could have led to a quick lineout for his own team, and then, fielding a deeper kick, he conceded a scrum five by touching down after he had made contact with the ball.
Fortunately for the winger, the defence kept the All Black attack at bay on both occasions, but the pressure was mounting, and the equalising score came two minutes before half-time through Beauden Barrett after John Barclay was penalised for going to ground in the tackle. Russell was short with a drop-goal attempt as the clock went red, and New Zealand counter-attacked deep into Scottish territory before conceding a penalty that the home side kicked to touch to end the half.
The All Blacks had not only had a quiet 40 minutes by their standards, they were also fortunate to have kept 15 men on the field throughout, as Waisake Naholo could easily have been yellow-carded for taking Stuart Hogg out in the air. The referee somewhat leniently decided that a penalty was sufficient punishment, ruling that the winger had been obstructed by Ali Price and had to change the angle of his run as a result.
It was a different New Zealand that emerged for the second half, and within five minutes they were ahead for the first time, with hooker Codie Taylor popping up on the left wing after his fellow-forwards had ploughed their way deep into the home 22. Barrett failed to add the two points, but he made no mistake when presented with a far simpler opportunity seven minutes later.
The stand-off was involved in the try-scoring move himself, passing to Sonny Bill Williams, who from 10 metres out sent a delicate grubber kick into the in-goal area. Damian McKenzie won the race to touch down, and Barrett’s conversion put his team a dozen points clear.
After expending so much effort for so little reward, Scotland, had to pick themselves up and go again, and they did so in the most exciting passage of play in the game, with Jonny Gray concluding a fierce siege by touching down for a score converted by Russell. The All Blacks were a man down by the time the lock scored, as Sam Cane was rightly sent to the bin for killing the ball when Price ran a penalty. Scotland were back to within a score, but New Zealand then raised their game again, and six minutes later a devastating counter-attack produced a converted try for Barrett.
With 10 minutes to play Wyatt Crockett became the second New Zealander to be sinbinned after climbing over the top of a ruck to grab price, and Scotland laid siege to the visitors’ line again. A scrum penalty against them eventually ended that attack, and also brought a frenetic period to an end – for a brief time at least.
Then, with three minutes to go, Scotland hit back. Seymour gathered a Hogg kick ahead, and passed to Huw Jones, whose race to the line could not be stopped. Russell’s conversion again reduced the deficit to five points.
Going into the final minute, Scotland had to attack from deep in a bid to get the score that would level the game or snatch a dramatic win, but as Hogg made a breathtaking break then sought an inside pass as he was tackled, the ball went forward and the chance was gone. The All Blacks had been stretched far more than most people had expected – their two yellow cards were testament to that – but, as they do so often, had been relentless enough to claim a win that they just about deserved.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, A Dunbar, L Jones; F Russell, A Price; D Marfo, S McInally, Z Fagerson, B Toolis, J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson, C du Preez. Substitutes: L Hamilton, S Berghan, P Horne, G Turner, G Gilchrist, J Bhatti, B McGuigan, H Pyrgos.
New Zealand: D McKenzie; W Naholo, R Crotty, S Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith; K Hames, C Taylor, N Laulala, L Romano, S Whitelock, V Fifita, S Cane, K Read. Substitutes: L Squire, W Crockett, A Lienert-Brown, O Tu’ungafasi, T Perenara, N Harris, M Todd, L Sopoaga.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Gray, H Jones. Cons: Russell 2. Pen: Russell.
New Zealand: Tries: Taylor, McKenzie, Barrett. Cons: Barrett 2. Pen: Barrett.
Scoring sequence: 3-0, 3-3 half-time, 3-8, 3-13, 3-15, 8-15, 10-15, 10-20, 10-22, 15-22, 17-22.
Yellow cards: New Zealand: Cane, Crockett.
Referee: M Carley (England).