At BT Murrayfield
SCOTLAND marked Gregor Townsend’s first home game as head coach with six tries, but this victory was far from the convincing kind usually associated with such productivity in attack. More importantly, it was also far from the kind of first Autumn Test needed to set the team up for the forthcoming games against New Zealand and Australia.
Seven points up in two minutes, and 15 clear at half-time, Townsend’s side looked slightly superior to Samoa for most of the match, and should have gone on to win more convincingly. But partly because of their own shortcomings, and partly due to the tourists’ refusal to admit defeat, they failed to kill the game off, and in the end were relieved to emerge with a narrow victory.
Scraping a win is better than losing at the death, of course, and a defeat here would have been disastrous for morale. But apart from the result itself and a few attacking moves that produced tries, there was little positive to be said about the game.
No one individual played irredeemably badly; nobody committed a series of howlers. Instead, during a game played in near-perfect conditions for running rugby, the team as a whole simply did not click.
The defence, in particular, looked like something was wrong – if not in the system itself, at least in the ability of individuals to concentrate on their role within it. Hence the Samoans’ ability to score five tries.
The attack was sharp at times, being particularly acute at sniffing out Samoan weaknesses. Hence their ability to score six tries, with Stuart Hogg leading the way and the others coming from Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar, Pete Horne and Stuart McInally with two. But any attempt to take on the All Blacks or the Wallabies in a contest of ‘you score five, we’ll score six’ is sure to end in failure.
Scotland got off to the best of starts, turning over possession twice in the opening minute and a half, and producing the opening try from the second of those. Finn Russell’s grubber kick up the right was hacked on by Tommy Seymour deep into the Samoa 22, and the ball bounced kindly for Hogg to gather and touch down. Russell’s conversion put the visitors seven points down before they had scarcely got their hands on the ball, but they soon began to make their physical prowess tell, and after a dozen minutes Tim Nanai-Williams opened their account with a penalty after two Scotland forwards had strayed offside. But the No 10 gave away a penalty himself shortly thereafter, failing to roll away after tackling Lee Jones, and Russell chipped over from the edge of the 22 to take Scotland into double figures.
Close to midway through the half another low kick from Russell, this time on the left wing, threatened to give Scotland a second try, and indeed Hogg touched down after Jones had tapped it on. But a TMO review revealed what had already been clear to most of the crowd, that the ball had fully crossed the line before Jones made contact, so the score was disallowed.
While some of Samoa’s attacks showed promise, they were too often architects of their own downfall, never more so than in the 24th minute when a Russell clearance from just outside his own 22 went out on the full. In his rush to restart play, and unaware that his team were due to take a lineout 70 metres upfield, lock Josh Tyrell threw in immediately from the edge of his own 22. Play had to continue from that point, and Samoa first failed to clear their lines properly and then offended again, giving Russell an easy penalty.
Tyrell soon more than made up for the error, however, finishing off a forward drive from no metre out. The TMO was again needed before the score was given, as several Scots had tried to get underneath the ball, but given it was, and Nanai-Williams converted from in front of the posts to make it 13-10 with half an hour played.
Although Scotland did not commit mistakes as blatant as the try-scorer’s, they continued to handicap themselves with some elementary handling errors – until, that is, five minutes before the interval, when Huw Jones claimed their second try. Ali Price fed Hogg from the base of a ruck, then the full-back sent a miss-pass out to Jones on the left. With three defenders closing him down, the centre had a lot to do, but he succeeded in shrugging off one tackle and evading the other two Samoans in a sprint to the line.
Russell failed to convert, but there was still time for Scotland to stretch their lead before half-time. A five-metre lineout on the left was safely gathered then driven by the pack, and Stuart McInally positioned himself well at the back to dive over for a converted score.
A 15-point advantage at the break may have flattered Scotland a little, but it was a good platform on which to build, and it did not take them long to stretch their lead. A lineout was again the source, and McInally again the finisher as the pack drove slowly but unstoppably for the last few metres.
The Samoan pack had been second best in the set-piece, but they had the edge at times in close-quarters exchanges, from one of which they claimed their second try. As with the first, Scotland thought they had got bodies under the ball, but the referee ruled that flanker Piula Fa’asalele had touched down cleanly. Nanai-Williams’ conversion still left Samoa more than two full scores behind, but the try was a reminder to Scotland that, with 25 minutes to play, they could not presume that the game was won.
Zander Fagerson was the only substitute used in the first 58, having come after half an hour when Willem Nel was injured. Townsend’s next move after that Samoa try, with the game having got bogged down somewhat, was to bring four men off the bench at once – George Turner, Jamie Bhatti and Chris Harris joining Darryl Marfo as debutants, and Cornell du Preez replacing captain John Barclay.
Scotland certainly needed a new lease of life, but it was Samoa who got it, and with 18 minutes to play Nanai-Williams drifted through to score a try which he converted himself. That reminder about the game not being over was now a stern warning: Townsend’s team needed to react, and quickly, to quash Samoa’s prospects of a dramatic fightback.
They did. Pete Horne and Henry Pyrgos came on as replacement half-backs, and the former produced a score with his first touch. His diagonal to the left corner should have been fielded by the defence, but a fumble allowed Lee Jones to collect and pop up the scoring pass to Alex Dunbar.
Horne missed the conversion attempt, and the potential costliness of that failure was soon made apparent when Samoa claimed another try two minutes later. The defence’s concentration and organisation appeared to desert them at a couple of points in a Samoan attack, and centre Kieron Fonotia was able to finish off from close range. Nanai-Williams was able to convert, too, leaving Scotland just six points ahead.
Fortunately for the Scots, Samoa’s defence was shaky too, and with five minutes to go a reverse pass from Du Preez set Horne clear. The substitute raced for the line from just inside the 22, and when he added the two points that should have been that. Once more, however, Samoa hit back almost immediately, and Ofisa Treviranus barged over between the posts for a score which, when converted, made it a six-point game again.
Scotland saw out the remaining minutes by stifling Samoa’s attempt to attack from deep, but it was nonetheless an uncomfortable ending to a contest which should have been closed out some time before the end. Not as uncomfortable as it will be next week, however, if the many glaring deficiencies are not dealt with.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, A Dunbar, L Jones; F Russell, A Price; D Marfo, S McInally, W Nel, J Gray, B Toolis, J Barclay, H Watson, R Wilson. Subs: Z Fagerson, G Turner, J Bhatti, C du Preez, C Harris, H Pyrgos, P Horne, T Swinson.
Samoa: A Tuala; P Perez, K Fonotia, R Lee-Lo, D Lemi; T Nanai-Williams, P Cowley; J Lay, M Leiataua, D Brighouse, J Tyrell, C Vui, P Fa’asalele, T Ioane, J Lam. Subs: M Matavao, H Sasagi, M Matu’u, O Treviranus, A Leiua, F Lemalu, A Alatimu.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Hogg, H Jones, McInally 2, Dunbar, Horne. Cons: Russell 3, Horne. Pens: Russell 2.
Samoa: Tries: Tyrell, Fa’asalele, Nanai-Williams, Fonotia, Treviranus. Cons: Nanai-Williams 5. Pen: Nanai-Williams.
Scoring sequence: 5-0, 7-0, 7-3, 10-3, 13-3, 13-8, 13-10, 18-10, 23-10, 25-10, half-time, 30-10, 32-10, 32-15, 32-17, 32-22, 32-24, 37-24, 37-29, 37-31, 42-31, 44-31, 44-36, 44-38.
Referee: N Berry (Australia).