Gripping night but Vern Cotter has a pack puzzle

There was plenty about Scotland's performance to please Vern Cotter and Scott Johnson. Picture: Ian Rutherford
There was plenty about Scotland's performance to please Vern Cotter and Scott Johnson. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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It was the near perfect storm. Two teams who wanted to play with the ball in hand, a brand new semi-artificial pitch that facilitated these lofty ambitions and the rain stayed off until the second half; little wonder we witnessed nine tries in Scotland’s gripping 41-31 victory against Argentina in the first Autumn Test at BT Murrayfield on Saturday.

Argentina played their part from the little back flip from Juan Martin Hernandez to the tapped penalty that scrum-half Martin Landajo took five metres from his own try line. Scotland’s high-tempo game was aided and abetted by Argentina’s own ambitious play. Towards the end, you felt the visitors would have been better advised to slow the tempo and kick to the corners as their forwards finally had the upper hand.

Much of the attention in the build-up to the match had focused on the midfield of Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett. Both of them did the needful but neither stood head and shoulders above their peers.

Dunbar has played 40 minutes of rugby in the last seven weeks and he looked a little rusty. You fancy that, had the centre been fully up to speed, he would have had enough gas in the tank to prevent Javier Desio from scoring that first Argentina try. Dunbar did, in case you forgot, record the fastest speed set by a Scotland back when scoring against Italy in Rome last season. Still, the centre made all his tackles and ripped the ball to earn a turnover into the bargain.

His midfield colleague Bennett was under the Bosch all afternoon, the Marcelo Bosch. The big, muscular Argentine centre gave his opposite number precious little time and space and Bennett took a little time to adjust to the greater pace and intensity of Test rugby. The youngster lost the ball in contact a couple of times and one pass of his was directed behind Tommy Seymour, which spoilt a half chance of a try.

A little later, Bennett over-ran Jonny Gray when he was supporting the lock, which was one reason Gray didn’t/couldn’t make the pass. The centre then guddled the ball into touch around the half-hour mark. He will have learned valuable lessons from yesterday’s outings and, with this game behind them, the pair will be better next weekend against New Zealand. They will need to be.

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The other areas Vern Cotter will look to improve upon is the first and third rows of the scrum. Argentina won a penalty try on 70 minutes when Scotland had just brought in Gordon Reid for Alasdair Dickinson. Interestingly, Rob Harley was in the sin-bin when it happened and Dunbar offered himself as a makeshift flanker but he appeared to be sent back to his midfield post. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake.

Up to that point, the scrums had been shared evenly between Argentina, Scotland and the referee Wayne Barnes, who was quick to ping any technical infringements like pushing before the ball is fed, if only because they are easy to spot. Australia conceded a penalty try to Wales and New Zealand also conceded one late in their game against England, so that area of the game ended up 2-1 to the Northern Hemisphere. It will be interesting to see who starts in the All Blacks front row against Scotland.

After a shaky start, Euan Murray did better than many expected against Marcos Ayerza, one of the best looseheads in the business. On the opposite side of the scrum, Dickinson held his end up pretty well until he tired in the final quarter.

Cotter may leave well alone in the front row for the want of any obvious alternatives but he must be tempted to tinker with the back row, where Blair Cowan had a quiet game. One of the reasons he gets the nod is because he has the speed and handling skills to pop up in midfield and link with the backs. But Scotland already have the Gray brothers Richie and Jonny, locking the second row, both of whom are adept at doing just that and they bring a substantial physical presence along with their silken skills.

Cowan is relatively slight for a Test forward and, on the odd occasion he got himself in the right position, the Pumas pack blew him off the ball. It is difficult to remember him winning a turnover at the breakdown.

Whoever New Zealand select at seven, Richie McCaw, Sam Cane or Uncle Tom Cobley, will boss the breakdown unless Cotter finds a little more muscular character to contest the ball. Chris Fusaro is in the current squad, although there is plenty of support for John Barclay, who is doing good things with the Scarlets in West Wales. Alternatively, Alasdair Strokosch replaced Cowan around the one-hour mark and Cotter could go with his added physicality rather than a specialist seven. The point is that the coach has alternatives and it would be a surprise if he didn’t explore them.

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