RARELY have the ecstasy and agony of international sport been twinned so painfully close together in any arena as when the Scottish fans who dominated Twickenham’s rugby cathedral yesterday were wallowing in a glorious victory one minute and on their knees the very next. After this defeat, the four World Cup semi-finalists all hail from south of the equator.
The Scots were leading with less than one minute of this match left on the stadium clock only to see their dreams dashed in the worse way possible, under an ugly cloud of controversy.
A Mark Bennett interception try in the 73rd minute of the match and Greig Laidlaw’s conversion that followed it gave Scotland a two-point lead with six minutes left on the clock to defend it.
Not for the first time in this competition, the Scots had their pockets picked at the restart, so play took place inside the blue half of the field. A lineout throw was slightly overcooked and David Denton at the tail could only palm the ball back. Several players competed for the bobbling ball which was knocked forward by Josh Strauss’ shoulder and helped on its way by Wallaby scrum-half Nick Phipps’ arm/body before ending up in Jon Welsh’s hands.
The South African referee Craig Joubert gave the Australians a penalty for offside and the grateful Wallabies played their get-out-of-jail card, Bernard Foley kicking the penalty inside the final 60 seconds. Had the referee spotted the Phipps intervention he would have waved play on.
It was a hugely controversial call and, with so much at stake, surely the New Zealand TMO could have at least reviewed the footage if only to put an end to all the arguments because the referee can’t go to the TMO under these circumstances.
There was still time for the restart but the Scots couldn’t get hands on the ball and, after blowing the whistle for the final time, Joubert sprinted off the field to jeers from the vocal Scottish contingent and dodging the odd water bottle coming his way. It was a sorry end to a scintillating match.
Greig Laidlaw, when interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the game with emotions running high, talked about “one bad decision by the referee”. It looked like a penalty from the back of the press box but, if it hit Phipps’ hand, it should have been a scrum. If it was cruel luck for the Scottish fans, spare a thought for the players who had emptied themselves in the cause.
The Scots’ toast also fell marmalade side down in a yellow card decision that saw Sean Maitland sit out ten minutes and allowed the Wallabies a soft score on his wing while he did so. In another controversial moment, Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg was taken out a fraction late by Drew Mitchell after a putting in a clearance kick but he has previous in this matter which may have worked against him this time.
The confusion and controversy at the end of the game marred a hugely entertaining 80 minutes of rugby in which the Scots played their full part showing guts, character and no little skill. Every time the Australians threatened to run away with this one, the Scots hitched up their kilts and found an answer of some sort.
The Scots played smart rugby, kicking downfield rather than into touch to prevent the Aussies driving their lineouts. They also played some seven-a-side rugby, popping the ball out of contact and flipping it off the ground to avoid a breakdown where the Wallabies could contest for the ball.
But very few teams can concede five tries and hope to win a Test match and, not for the first time, Vern Cotter’s men will rue their defensive failures that allowed the Aussies to cross their line so often, including twice in two minutes either side of half-time, although the tries were interrupted by a cup of hot Bovril in the dressing rooms.
The problems seem to happen in the wide channels and both Scottish wingers, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour, were guilty at times of jumping out of the line to no good effect. The former got caught in no- man’s land when Drew Mitchell scored the first of his brace and Seymour was bounced off by Tevita Kuridrani for Adam Ashley-Cooper’s score.
The Scots scored three tries themselves, two of which were converted by Laidlaw, who also contributed five penalties in another kicking masterclass. In addition to Horne’s cheeky first-half effort, when the little centre stepped through the middle of a ruck, and Bennett’s late interception, Seymour took full advantage of Finn Russell’s charge down on his opposite number to score a 58th-minute try that kept the Scots in this game.
The ploy of fielding twin openside flankers paid dividends with a slew of turnovers at the breakdown. David Denton and the Gray brothers carried the ball with intent, horsing into the yellow jerseys and hurting bodies and the Scottish scrum bossed the set piece, winning several scrum penalties.
The Australians’ twin scores on 40 and 42 minutes seemed to have things sewn up. At the tailend of the first half they rumbled one lineout drive over from short range, fortune favouring the brave this time, with Michael Hooper coming up with the ball. That was the last act of the half and, two minutes after the restart, Mitchell had his second with his marker sitting in the sin bin.
Scottish hopes of a famous win were looking thin when they lost their own throw at a defending lineout and the Wallabies only needed to run through a few phases before Tevita Kuridrani found a gap big enough even for his sizeable frame. The Aussies had an eight-point lead but the drama had only just started. Laidlaw’s boot kept the Scots in touch before Bennett produced his little piece of magic seven minutes from time to send the Scots into raptures that lasted just six.
AUSTRALIA: Beale;, Ashley-Cooper, Kuridrani, Giteau, Mitchell; Foley, Genia (Phipps 70); Sio (Slipper 52), Moore (Poloto-Nau 62), Kepu, Douglas, Simmons, Fardy, Hooper, McCalman.
SCOTLAND: Hogg; Maitland, Bennett, Horne (Vernon 70), Seymour; Russell, Laidlaw; Dickinson (Reid 52), Ford (Brown 54), Nel (Welsh 75), R Gray, J Gray (Swinson 66), Cowan (Strauss 66), Hardie, Denton.