A FEARLESS performance by Scotland Under-20s saw them pick up their first ever victory over Ireland at a Junior World Cup and set them on course for their best finish in the tournament to date. John Dalziel’s side scored five tries to their opponents’ three, playing a high tempo brand of rugby which was exhilarating to behold, but also terrifying at times for those with a vested interest in the team’s fortunes.
In order to play to their strengths, Scotland must be prepared to throw caution to the wind. In Darcy Graham, Ross McCann, Robbie Nairn and Blair Kinghorn they have broken-field runners capable of wreaking havoc from almost anywhere on the park, and when it clicked in this game Ireland simply could not cope. The flip side is that not every gamble pays off, and as a result the Scots were never quite able to shake themselves clear of their stubborn opponents.
It is a delicate balancing act, and the fact Scotland managed to pick up such an important win suggests that they are not a million miles away from getting it right – but life might have been slightly easier if they had been a little more circumspect and/or accurate at key moments.
It would, however, be churlish to worry too much about that when there was so much joyous ambition and inspirational bravery on display. The slick boys in the backline might have had a field day, but the tireless graft of the pack on a sweltering hot afternoon in Georgia was equally impressive. Every Scottish forward put in a huge shift in both the tight exchanges and when the ball was on the move.
Scotland burst out the traps at breakneck speed and would have taken an early lead had Matt Fagerson managed to gather a pop pass off the deck with the line at his mercy, but Ireland survived that scare and soaked up fifteen more minutes of pressure before striking back in devastating fashion.
Twice they got close – Gavin Mullin fumbled Alan Tynan’s toe-poke ahead when all he needed to do was flop over the line, and then his centre partner Ciaran Frawley was held up over the line by a tag team effort from Fagerson and Alex Craig – before bursting into a ten-point lead. Aided by the concession of a couple of lazy offside penalties by Scotland they soon burst into a ten-point lead, with the first three points coming from the boot of Conor Dean, before scrum-half Jack Stafford catching the boys in blue on the hop with a quick tap and scamper over the line.
Scotland’s response was sensational. A devastating breakout from inside their own 22 was initiated by a wonderful back-of-the-hand offload from Stafford McDowall, which sent Darcy Graham on a scintillating 60 yard dash up-field, brushing past both opposition wingers as he went; and when the Hawick man was eventually scragged by Ireland’s desperate cover defence he had the presence of mind to delay his pop off the deck for a brief moment until Ross McCann had arrived on the scene like a runaway train, bringing with him more than enough momentum to arch past the remnants of Ireland’s beleaguered defence on his way to the line.
As half-time loomed large Scotland had three opportunities to tie the contest with kickable penalties and on each occasion they opted to go for the corner in order to build that line-out drive which was so effective against New Zealand four days earlier. They eventually got their reward in the last minute before the break when hooker Fraser Renwick broke off the back of a maul and dived over.
The young Scots showed from the start of the second half that they were hell-bent on escalating the free-wheeling style of rugby they had exhibited in flashes during the first 40 minutes, but their ambition nearly cost them dearrly when Gavin Coombes intercepted an inside pass from George Thornton and it took a giant cover tackle from Fagerson to snuff out what looked like a certain score.
Despite this scare, Scotland continued to play with breathtaking ambition and Graham jinked over in the corner for a well deserved try in the 53rd minute, after good build-up work from Blair Kinghorn and Fagerson.
Ireland struck back when Jack Kelly exploited a dog-leg in Scotland’s defensive line created when Ross McCann – usually a wing but cameoing in the centre in this match – went for the blitz but didn’t quite get his timing right.
In the grand scheme of things, that error in judgement by the Melrose player can easily be forgiven. He had far more positive than negative contributions over the 80 minutes, and was invariably one of Scotland’s key figures during those breathless periods of play in which the Scots ran their opponents ragged.
Within minutes, McCann had made amends, arriving on the scene at the right time to provide a vital link between replacement scrum-half Charlie Shiel and Callum Hunter-Hill in the lead-up to Connor Eastgate’s try. Hunter-Hill also deserves an honorable mention for initially getting that move going with a powerful midfield break.
An Alan Tynan penalty in the 67th minute reduced the gap to just four points, but within a minute Scotland had stretched away again, this time Robbie Nairn getting the dot down after another sweeping attack.
Ireland kept plugging away, and they showed some flair of their own with Jack Regan snaffling possession in the middle of the park, Michael Silvester rampaged up the left touchline and Kelly riding a high tackle from Luke Cosbie to score in the opposite corner.
Tynan missed the tricky conversion, which meant Ireland needed to score a try to grab victory, and they continued to threaten right to the end.
Then the Scots were handed a major let-off when Caelen Doris tried to take a quick tap after his team had been awarded a scrum penalty but ended up booting the ball into the backside of one of his team-mates.
Scotland held on at the resulting scrum and retained possession through two more phases to run down the clock to secure a famous victory.
Ireland: A Tynan; J Kelly G Mullin, C Frawley, C Nash (M Silvester 54); C Dean (A Curtis 54), J Stafford (J Stewart 64); J Duggan (G McGrath 62), R Kelleher (A Moloney 62), C Connolly (P Cooper 37), F Wycherley, O Dowling (J Regan 62), S Masterson (G Coombes 40), P Boyle, C Doris.
Scotland: B Kinghorn (J Henderson 44-48); R Nairn, R McCann, S McDowall, D Graham; C Eastgate, A Simmers (C Shiel 44); G Thornton (R Dunbar 78), F Renwick (R Smith 77), A Nicol (F Bradbury 65), A Craig (H Bain 65), C Hunter-Hill, B Flockhart (T Dodd 22), L Crosbie, M Fagerson.
Ireland: Try: Stafford, Kelly 2; Con: Dean, Tynan; Pen: Dean 2, Tynan.
Scotland: Try: McCann, Renwick, Graham, Eastgate, Nairn; Con: Eastgate 2; Pen: Eastgate.
Scoring Sequence (Ireland first): 3-0; 8-0; 10-0; 10-5; 10-7; 10-12 (h-t) 10-15; 13-15; 13-20; 13-22; 18-22; 20-22; 20-27; 23-27; 23-32; 28-32.
Man-of-the-Match: Scotland’s attacking flair was awe-inspiring, and Matt Fagerson had more than his fair share of that – but he was also devastating in defence and at the breakdown. He was the omnipresent character in this cracking story for all Scottish rugby supporters.
Talking Point: Is there enough gas left in the tank for Scotland to back this up with another bonus point victory over Italy on Thursday? And if they do manage that, will it be enough to see them sneak into the top four Cup competition for the first time ever?