SCOTT Johnson set up a handful of newcomers to Test rugby to find out about Scotland’s strength in depth and Samoa ensured it would be a bitter experience in the heat of Durban on Saturday.
The interim head coach introduced six new caps, three off the bench, at the weekend to take to nine the number of newcomers fielded since he took over at the start of the year, and to 32 the number of rookies capped since November 2009. This tour was always going to be about testing Scotland’s strength in depth and after game one and a fully deserved first Test win for Samoa in nine meetings the fact is that it remains worryingly slim.
In some areas Johnson had no choice but to field Test newcomers with gaps left by Lions Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Richie Gray and Ryan Grant, the latter called to Australia on Friday and going straight on to the bench tomorrow night, and recent retirals Allan Jacobsen and Joe Ansbro.
But, on top of that, injuries had deprived the squad of openside flankers Ross Rennie and John Barclay, hookers Ross Ford and Dougie Hall, Chris Cusiter and Duncan Weir, while experienced centres Nick de Luca and Max Evans were deliberately left behind to allow opportunities for new trio Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne and Duncan Taylor to step up.
So Scotland fielded six new caps in all against Samoa, with Tom Heathcote and Grant Gilchrist winning their second caps and that inexperience told in a decidedly shaky start, and when a string of players are caught in the glare of headlights against a side as eager, powerful and full of running as the South Sea Islanders there is only one outcome.
Samoa are an under-rated side, full of professional players involved with leading Super Rugby, French and English sides, and Test rugby affords no time for players to come up to speed. By the time Scotland lifted their heads out of the initial maelstrom and grasped that fact there were ten minutes on the clock and 14 Samoan points on the scoreboard, tries by the impressive attacking duo of James So’oialo and Alesana Tuilaga both converted by Connacht-bound So’oialo.
For the most experienced player in the Scotland team, Sean Lamont, who collected his 77th cap and tenth try, with a score that put Scotland momentarily ahead, it was all too reminiscent of the last fall to South Seas opposition.
“It was Tonga again,” he said, revealing the memory of the November defeat in Aberdeen to still be fresh. “We got bullied – in the cold light of day you’ve got to say big guys bullied us – and you should never get bullied in terms of physicality.
“I might understand if we’d got out-skilled or out-played by a better team, but we got bullied. Yes, there were some good bits, but the fundamentals were wrong. A 14-point head start at international level against any opposition is difficult to get back, and right now it’s a big frustration. We are better than that. It always seems as if we need to have a poor start before we start to come together, and we have to stop it, as a team.”
Lamont refused to point the finger of blame at anyone in the side and particularly the uncapped players.
“We had six new caps so there was a lack of experience but this was not about experience,” he said. “It was about physicality, or lack of it. As I’ve said we were bullied. They [Samoa] did well. But we come up against big boys week in week out; every team has powerful players, big strong runners and the guys know what they’ve got to do.
“And however physical Samoa were, South Africa will be as physical and have a nastier edge, so we have to step up now as a team. We know what we’ve got to do and how we can correct it. It’s just about getting down to it, getting rid of the slow starts and if we want to save some face we have to man up.”
Scotland fought back after the early setback and with the pack gaining parity in the scrum and ensuring good lineout ball, a good maul up the right provided some impetus and confidence with which to attack at a more convincing pace.
A skilful chip over the Samoans’ rush defence by Laidlaw was won by Matt Scott, but no-one else read it and he was engulfed by defenders just metres from the posts with no off-load available. Another lineout on the right threw up another opportunity with Alasdair Strokosch, one of Scotland’s better players, making good ground on the charge, and the backs moving ball well until Scott was flattened in a man-and-ball tackle.
Dunbar showed good determination in breaking tackles and making ground and Lamont made an incisive run deep into the Samoan half which was taken on with conviction by Alasdair Dickinson, enjoying a good return to Test rugby after a two-year absence. But, again, it foundered with a try beckoning when Scott’s pass whizzed behind Tim Visser and into touch. Basic skills under pressure.
Because of that effort, however, Laidlaw was able to keep Scotland in touch with three first-half penalties, and another shortly after the break before Lamont lifted the hopes of the small contingent of Scots dotted around the one-third full stadium.
Scotland took the lead ten minutes into the second half when pressure at the scrum forced an error from Samoa five metres from their own line. Ryan Wilson, on for Kelly Brown at the interval, drove towards the line, sucking in defenders, and the ball was moved right. Scott’s pass was loose, but Heathcote tidied it up and fed Alex Dunbar who wasted no time in feeding Sean Lamont on the touchline for an easy dive into the right-hand corner.
Lamont’s try-scoring return has been criticised, but is also partly symptomatic of the lack of opportunities provided through his decade in international rugby. But his tenth score did not suddenly banish Scottish errors and a poor restart take – one of Scotland’s most destructive areas in recent times – led to Samoa coming back for a So’oialo penalty to level matters and a second try for Tuilagi, who came off his left wing behind a scrum and demolished Scottish tacklers to score by the posts. So Lamont could not even enjoy this one.
“I felt then that we were there or thereabouts at that point [his try],” said the winger, “but sometimes a team that stretches away eases off a bit, you catch up and they go ‘oh-oh’ and they put the pressure back on, and we let them get away from us.
“From the try I scored, we quickly put ourselves under pressure by not catching the ball cleanly and kicking it out ten metres from where we caught it and they put the pressure on again. That’s something we have worked on and worked on, score a try, take the kick-off cleanly and get out. It’s another example of something we need to sort this week.”
He was right. With the attacking shape having slid about all day and the defence still fatally tentative, on the back foot, the inexperience of players evident in the failure to drive the defensive line at the Samoans, Scotland played into the hands of Paul Williams’ side. Though Scots worked tirelessly to scramble the defence and did keep them out valiantly, stopping Samoan runners allowed to pick up speed came with a cost.
Debutant hooker Pat MacArthur had to be replaced in the first quarter after injuring a knee bravely stopping Tuilagi. Skipper Kelly Brown was forced off with an ankle injury at half-time and veteran tighthead Euan Murray followed minutes later with a hamstring injury before Tom Heathcote went off 14 minutes into the half, having enjoyed some good moments on his first start but clearly shaken.
Lock Grant Gilchrist took a heavy knock from tighthead Census Johnston, Scott was birling for minutes after finding two Samoans waiting for him up a blind alley and Stevie Lawrie, Peter Horne, Johnnie Beattie and Alasdair Strokosch all required lengthy spells of treatment as they imitated a boxer struggling to beat the count after a devastating punch.
When that physical challenge was compounded by lackadaisical defending, wing Tim Visser an early culprit, Horne, on at stand-off, being steamrollered on the last try by Tuilagi, and a handful of others getting their tackling technique all wrong, this was never going to end in smiles for the Scots.
Yesterday, they flew out of a cloudy and windy Durban and pitched up in Nelspruit, to begin preperations to take on a South Africa team looking to build on a 44-10 win against Italy. Lamont believes they will significantly improve performance levels, one presumes after a swift return to tackling practice.
“The frustrating thing for me is that I know that we are capable of doing that [turning it around in a week] and believe that we will, so why didn’t we against Samoa? We’ve done it before against South Africa and we’ve beaten them, at home.
“We’re now on their turf so it will be a tougher challenge, but we can match them physically. There is no excuse.”
There is no argument either. Test opportunities may not appear for some of these players again if there is not improvement this week.