DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield
A SURREAL atmosphere at Murrayfield, with the famous old stadium almost completely empty apart from the players on the pitch, some wider squad members in the technical areas, and a smattering of officials and journalists in the West Stand – but the home side did a pretty professional job of making sure that there was nothing unnerving about the way this game progressed.
Three tries in the first half put the hosts in a commanding 17-0 half-time lead, and although they had a slight wobble straight after the break, it was nothing more than that. Five further tries eased Gregor Townsend’s men home.
A winning start to the autumn, and certainly more positives than negatives, but the Scots will be acutely aware that a far tougher challenge lies in store when they head to Wales for their Six Nations denouement next Saturday.
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Scotland started brightly and raced into an early lead when Darcy Graham took a quick tap-penalty and bustled past three lumbering Georgian tacklers on his way to the line, with the ball being ground just a three second after the two-minute mark. Adam Hastings then sent the touchline conversion in off the upright, and the hosts should have been immediately back on the offensive when the restart went out on the full and the Georgian scrum conceded a penalty under pressure – but a missed kick to touch, a knock-on, and a couple of ruck penalties conceded in quick succession allowed the visitors to catch their breath.
If the lapses in accuracy were frustrating for Scotland, their general shape was exactly what they would have been looking for and they were running the ball with real intent, so it always felt like a matter of time before they opened up more daylight between themselves and their Eastern European guests.
Hastings almost unlocked the Georgian defence for try number two with a lovely chip over the top but Chris Harris didn’t quite manage to collect with the line at his mercy. But the boys in blue didn’t have to wait much longer to stretch that lead, with skipper for the night Fraser Brown getting his name in the scoresheet when a close-range line-out drive motored over the line.
Georgia were lucky still to have 14 men on the park at this point, with tight-head prop Lekso Kaulashvili surely deserving a yellow for flying into an earlier maul from the side, right under referee Alexandre Ruiz’s nose.
Another powerful line-out drive laid the platform for try number three just a few minutes later, with the ball being worked in-field, before some deft handling from loose-head prop Rory Sutherland sent Hamish Watson down the newly created blind-side and over the line.
The one tangible negative from the opening 40 minutes for Scotland was the departure of Matt Fagerson – who had been busy both sides of the ball – shortly before the break. He appeared to be struggling with an ankle injury, but having jogged of the pitch unaided, there is cause for optimism that he can be back in the selection mix soon. Cornell du Preez took his place at No 8, and came within a whisker of marking the occasion with an immediate try, but the TMO ruled that a Georgian hand had managed to hold the ball up.
Scotland took a while to get back up and running after the break, and with Blair Kinghorn and Hastings both failing to safely gather high balls, Georgia were able to gain a foothold when a suspiciously flat pass by scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze sent Akaku Tabutsadze over on the right, and Tedo Abzhandadze drilled the wide conversion.
But that was as close as it got, with Brown getting his second and his team’s fourth try of the night on 50 minutes with another surging line-out drive.
Five minutes later, we witnessed the long-awaited return of Finn Russell, and it didn’t take him long to start chucking around those heart-stopping Hail-Mary passes, which clearly invigorated those around him, even if it was that trusty driven line-out (again) which inflicted the next blow – with Stuart McInally, on for Brown, getting the ball down.
Georgia had the kick of a dying man with a five minute spell camped inside the Scottish 22, but it didn’t amount to much, and with 10 minutes to go it was debutant Duhan van der Merwe’s chance to get on the score-sheet, racing onto Russell’s inside pass and cruising under the posts.
Georgia lost replacement scrum-half Gela Aprasidze to the sin-bin for the deliberate knock-on of Ben Toolis pass after a wonderful 20-yard gallop up the park by big second-row. Scotland kicked the penalty to the corner and a pass back to the touchline from the caught line-out sent Graham in for his second try.
Scotland finished with a flourish when Kinghorn chased down his own kick ahead and stepped inside the last man for a fine try, which Hastings converted to take his tally for the night to four from eight.
Scotland: B Kinghorn; D Graham, C Harris, J Lang (F Russell 55), D van der Merwe; A Hastings, A Price (G Horne 65); R Sutherland (O Kebble 55), F Brown (S McInally 55), Z Fagerson (S Berghan 55), B Toolis, S Cummings (R Harley 71), J Ritchie, H Watson (N Haining 65), M Fagerson (C du Preez 38).
Georgia: J Matiashvili; A Tabutsadze, D Tapladze, M Sharikadze (G Kveseladze 58), A Todua (T Mchedlidze 76); T Abzhandadze, V Lobzhanidze (G Aprasidze 61); M Nariashvili (G Gogichashvili 55), J Bregvadze (S Mamukashvili 40), L Kaulashvili (G Melikidze 40), N Cheishvili (G Javakhia 71), G Kerdikoshvili, O Giorgadze, B Saginadze, B Gorgadze.
Referee: A Ruiz (France)
Scotland: Tries: Graham 2, Brown 2, Watson, McInally, van der Merwe, Kinghorn; Con: Hastings 4.
Georgia: Try: Tabutsadze; Con: Abzhandadze.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 5-0; 7-0; 12-0; 17-0 (h-t) 17-5; 17-7; 22-7; 27-7; 29-7; 34-7; 36-7; 41-7; 46-7; 48-7.
Yellow cards –