ONCE it would have been a surprise to lose to Samoa and the defeat would have been considered a disaster. Now it is no surprise and only a disappointment. This is a measure of how far Samoa have come.
They have always had fine players. Now that the members of their squad play professional rugby in the Super 15 or the northern hemisphere, they have a fine team. They beat Wales in Cardiff last autumn and came close to beating France too. So they stand some way above Scotland in the IRB rankings.
We started appallingly and were 3-14 down well before the end of the first quarter. I daresay some people turned the TV off at that point or hid behind cushions. A real shellacking was possible. However, the team didn’t crumble. True, they went on making too many mistakes, but gradually they worked themselves back into the match. The forwards took control with a couple of driving mauls and some hard running.
Matt Scott came close to scoring a try from an audacious kick by Laidlaw and Tim Visser might have scored one if Scott’s overhead pass out of the tackle had been better directed. 3-14 became 6-14, 9-14, 12-14, and then midway through the second half, Sean Lamont scored in the corner. 17-14, and the game there to be won.
That was good, the result of determination and nerve. At that point I thought we would indeed go on to win.
Instead Al Kellock gave away a stupid penalty. 17-17. Then the formidable Tuilaigi did a Jonah Lomu act, running over Peter Horne, who had just replaced Tom Heathcote, much as Jonah trampled on Tony Underwood and Mike Catt to score in the 1995 World Cup. Welcome to international rugby, Peter; if it’s any consolation, Mike Catt went on to play in two more World Cups. 17-24. Then Johnnie Beattie conceded another stupid penalty. 17-27, and the match was lost even though we pressed hard near the end and almost crossed the Samoan line again.
Admittedly, Samoa threw away a try of their own, when the man running free with support either side, elected to kick and the ball ran dead. Nevertheless, Scotland lost the match in the two or three minutes after they took the lead. If they had got up into the Samoan half straight from the kick-off and camped there, my guess is they would have scored again, if only from another penalty, and won.
No doubt the numerous injuries and substitutions disrupted such fluency as they had, the loss of Kelly Brown at half-time being particularly important. But international rugby is a bruising business now and you just have to live with the consequences if you can. It says much for Peter Horne that after the Tuilaigi car-crash, he retained the confidence to make a couple of light-footed half-breaks.
Scott Johnson made much of his team losing the “collisions”. Most teams lose some collisions against the Samoans. Still too many tackles were missed, too many passes went astray. For the players new to international rugby, this will have been a harsh but valuable experience. One of the game’s disappointing features was the poor chasing of kicks. If you kick down the middle of the field , then you must nail the recipient or the man he passes to when most of his team are still in front of him. Then you have a chance of a turnover or a penalty.
The set-piece was all right, the mauling good and there were some storming runs from the forwards, notably Alastair Strokosch and Alasdair Dickinson. Young Heathcote did pretty well, considering the pressure he was under; one lovely inside pass sent Sean Lamont storming through. Both the young centres had their moments, and Greig Tonks, having begun badly, improved. Laidlaw was tough and resourceful as ever, but might have got the ball away quicker on occasion. Once he delayed so long after the call of “use it” that I thought for a moment the referee would actually apply the law, blow his whistle and give Samoa a scrum.
There will obviously be changes for the South African game, even if the starting XV may have to be made up of all the players who can stand on both feet, with the one-legged ones on the bench. Kelly Brown’s likely absence makes the decision to leave Rob Harley at home seem even stupider that it did when the touring party was picked. Tom Heathcote and Alex Dunbar are subject to what is called “the concussion return to play protocol”. So both may be rested until the third match which is likely to be against Italy. In which case it would be no surprise to see Lamont back in the centre with Duncan Taylor on the wing. It may of course have always been Johnson’s intention to field Ruaridh Jackson at 10 against South Africa. Peter Murchie will surely be given a chance at full back, and David Denton in the back-row .
To sum up: a defeat but not a disaster. Further evidence that nowadays we in Scotland have to run very hard merely to hold our ground.
There’s no getting away from that. The standard of world rugby is higher than ever before; and we have to come to terms with this. There are precious few easy matches now.