HISTORY was made on two counts in Salford this evening when Scotland Under-20s recorded not only a maiden victory over their Australian counterparts, but also got their Junior World Cup campaign off to a winning start for the first time ever.
The full significance of this result may not become clear for some time (it may take a couple of seasons), but in the immediate aftermath we can say with certainty that Scotland have finally bridged the gap between making up the numbers and being a credible force in age-grade rugby’s showcase international event.
John Dalziel’s men have good reason to believe that they have nothing to fear against hosts England in their second pool match on Saturday evening, having already defeated the red rose brigade in this year’s Six Nations – and success at the Manchester City Academy Stadium would put them in pole position to make history again by qualifying for the semi-finals of the tournament for the first time ever.
Scotland were certainly the more ambitious and inventive team, and in Darcy Graham they had the game’s outstanding performer. The Hawick winger may look like he is in danger of being blown away in a stiff breeze, but what he lacks in bulk he makes up with in pace, agility, intelligence and bravery. He had an electrifying effect on the game every time his hands were on the ball, and his scintillating try in the 63rd minute – when he burst on to a loose Australian clearance near the halfway line and swept past opposite number Simon Kennewell with a subtle change of angle, before outpacing the cover defence to score in the corner – was the defining moment of the match.
A head knock a few moments before that remarkable score means that he is now a doubt for the England game, although no official medical update was available after the match.
Scotland took the lead through an Adam Hastings penalty on the 20 minute mark. The stand-off also came off towards the end for a head injury assessment, but was looking bright and breezy, and insisting that he was ‘okay’, as he wondered around the perimeter of the pitch afterwards – which will gladden the hearts of the coaching team given the natural confidence he exudes in the playmaker role.
The stand-off says he is indifferent to the imposing shadow cast by father, Gavin, but it was hard not to note the family resemblance when Australia’s impressive full-back Jack Maddocks sent a towering up-and-under into the Salford sky during the opening exchanges, and Hastings junior charged 20 yards before perfectly timing a heroic leap above the heads of the opposition to collect the ball.
Having worked so hard to get their noses in front, Scotland seemed to go off the boil after that Hastings score, and they paid the price when Isack Rodda rampaged under the posts, to set up an easy conversion for Mack Mason.
One particular area which head coach John Dalziel will be concerned about as he looks ahead to taking on England is the scrum, although the Scots problems in this crucial area were not all of their own making, with the old problem of how the set-piece is officiated once again being brought into sharp focus by a farcical interlude just before half-time, when the ball was fed by Australian scrum-half James Tuttle towards his hooker Jordan Uelese’s feet, only to be left lying in the tunnel for several seconds before the scrum collapsed. Referee Thomas Charabas decided on a reset, and the same thing happened again, except this time a penalty was inexplicably given against the Scots.
Frustration inevitably boiled over and there was a fairly innocuous bout of shoving and shirt pulling, before the Australians kicked the penalty to touch, and when Charabas awarded a free-kick against the Wallabies for a squint throw almost before the ball had left Uelese’s hands, you couldn’t help feeling that he was trying his best to even things up.
It is a shame that among the raft of law variations we have been hearing about this week (including five changes to the way the scrum is to be refereed), there was no mention of the hooker being required to do his job and heel the ball backwards in the scrum – because episodes like this would reduce the game to a laughing-stock if it wasn’t so injudicious, not to mention mind-numbingly boring.
Campbell Magnay, the red-haired Australian centre, sounds and looks like he must have some Scottish heritage, and he certainly did the motherland a favour at the start of the second half when he foolishly got himself sent-off for a second yellow-card.
The sin-binning he received in the first half after a tip tackle may have been slightly harsh, but it was the correct call under the letter of the law; and given that he knew from that moment onwards that he was drinking in the last chance saloon, it defies comprehension that one of the most experienced players on the park (having played in nine Super Rugby matches for the Queensland Reds in the last year and a half) then got himself into trouble again with a neck-roll on Hastings.
The Scots had failed to make their numerical advantage count in the first half, but they wasted no time in pushing home the advantage when they got a second chance, by opting to kick for the corner instead of taking the easy three points on offer and then winning the line-out to create the platform for Zander Fagerson to rumble over.
Australia bounced back with a Mason penalty, but then came Graham’s magnificent intervention, and with Hastings nailing the conversion from the touchline the Scots had a five point cushion to take into a tense final quarter of an hour.
The Wallabies brought some heavy artillery off the bench, and the Scottish scrum began to really creak – but it did not break, and the all-round defensive effort was monumental. There was one hairy moment when Kennewell scampered down the right touchline and the TMO was required to adjudicate that a foot had strayed into touch, but as the clock ran down the Scots began to grow in stature whilst their opponents became increasingly frantic. History was beckoning and the boys in blue were ready to grab it with both hands.
Australia: Try: Rodda; Con: Mason; Pen: Mason.
Scotland: Try: Fagerson, Graham; Con: Hastings; Pen: Hastings.
Australia: J Maddocks; S Kennewell, C Magnay, N Jooste, L McNamara; M Mason, J Tuttle [captain]; V Fifita, J Uelese, T Lomax, I Rodda, A Scott-Young, L Wright, M Jones.
Replacements: R Leota for M Jones, 57mins; J Jackson-Hope for N Jooste, 57mins; J Taylor for J Uelese, 72mins; R Asiata for V Fifita, 72mins, S Vui for T Lomax, 72mins.
Scotland: Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby); Darcy Graham (Hawick), Rory Hutchinson (Northampton Saints), Tom Galbraith (Melrose), Ben Robbins (Currie); Adam Hastings (Bath Rugby), Hugh Fraser (Heriot’s); Murray McCallum (Heriot’s), Jake Kerr (Boroughmuir), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Andrew Davidson (Newcastle Falcons), Scott Cummings [captain] (Glasgow Warriors), Lewis Wynne (Stirling County), Matt Smith (Glasgow Hawks), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh Rugby).
Replacements: Alastair Miller (Melrose) for L Wynne, 10mins; George Taylor (Melrose) for T Galbraith, 52mins; Alex Craig (Gloucester) for A Miller, 52mins; A Miller for A Cummings, 57mins; Dan Elkington (Melrose) for M McCallum, 59mins; Charlie Shiel (Currie) for D Graham, 68-73, 76mins; Cameron Gray (Currie) for A Hastings, 68mins.
Man-of-the-Match: Darcy Graham.
IMAGES: CRAIG WATSON – www.craigwatson.co.uk –