THE DISAPPOINTMENT of another loss to New Zealand will be tempered by the fact that the Scots were wonderfully competitive and gusty, playing for the full 80 minutes with skill and ambition.
Clad in red shirts, the home team looked nothing like the side that had conceded 50-odd points in each of the last two encounters with this same opposition.
Yesterday the Scots were clinging on to the All Blacks’ coat tails deep inside the final quarter. Just one point separated them with six minutes left on the clock, and the final margin of victory was the narrowest since 1991. It may have been the same old story on the scoreboard but it was a whole new chapter in the development of this young Scottish side, not least on the psychological side. If you can live with the All Blacks, no one else will look quite so scary.
As they so often do, the Kiwis did just enough to get over the line. With the Scots hot on their heels the visitors upped the ante in the closing quarter. Coach Steve Hansen went to his star-studded bench, launching Sonny Bill Williams and Julian Savea into the action.
Dan Carter was replaced at stand-off by Colin Slade and new man kicked a penalty on 64 minutes to extend the New Zealand lead to four points. Greig Laidlaw responded in kind two minutes later to restore the one-point deficit. The crowd roared their approval. With exactly ten minutes left on the clock, the scrum-half lined up another more difficult shot, wide on the left, which would have given Scotland the lead and lifted the roof clean off this old stadium. Like Peter Dods 31 years ago, Laidlaw pushed it marginally wide and the crowd vented their frustration.
That collective cry of anguish was as nothing when the All Blacks second row Jeremy Thrush barged his way over the Scotland line on 74 minutes to score his team’s second touchdown and Slade’s conversion made this match safe.
It was a heroic effort from the men in red, even if it did fall agonisingly short, and it was generated by a forward pack that refused to bow to their “betters”. They stole three All Blacks lineouts in the first half alone and the Scots big men stopped the Kiwi attacking maul in its tracks twice, once at the end of the first half and again at the start of the second.
Against two of the best in the business, Sam Cane and Richie McCaw, the Scots struggled at the breakdown but improved as the match progressed and much of the Kiwis’ phase ball was rendered slow and useless. Scotland grew in confidence in the second half when they played the All Blacks at their own game and proved that the illustrious visitors could be stressed and stretched out of shape like mere mortals. The entire team played with a cohesive threat that, on another day, would surely have provided some reward more tangible than mere kudos. Had the Scots started that way who knows what might have happened?
Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell made clean breaks and only an inability to build the pressure in a relentless manner prevented the Scots from crossing the line. Scotland even insisted on running the ball out of defence, such was their confidence in holding on to possession. It may not have always been wise but this display of chutzpah couldn’t help but warm the heart.
Russell had the sort of game that will boost his reputation as one of the most exciting young players in the country, and I mean the UK. In one small second-half cameo he tackled the giant Savea, jumped to his feet to win the turnover before, a couple of plays later, threading the inch-perfect grubber to turn the All Black tide. He deserved a better result.
The nail-biting finish had seemed utterly unlikely after an ominous start from the All Blacks, who had the first try of the match after just nine minutes, having hardly touched the ball for the opening five.
A missed tackle on Victor Vito in the midfield allowed the No.8 to gallop all the way to the left-hand corner where he barrelled over the Scotland line with a couple of red shirts along for the ride. The television match official was asked to adjudicate but he obviously didn’t rewind the video far enough to see what looked to be a knock-on from McCaw in the build-up.
That early effort was quickly cancelled out by an opportunistic strike from Tommy Seymour, who latched on to a pass from McCaw and cantered home from 30 yards out. It was his second interception try in as many matches and he almost added a third early in the second half.
The twin kickers added seven penalties between them, giving New Zealand a slender 17-16 advantage deep inside the final quarter, which is when Hansen called for the cavalry and the All Blacks crawled over the finish line.
Scotland: Try: Seymour. Con: Laidlaw. Pens: Laidlaw 3.
New Zealand: Tries: Vito, Thrush. Con: Slade. Pens: Carter 3, Slade.
Scotland: Hogg, Maitland, Bennett (Lamont 12), Dunbar, Seymour; Russell, Laidlaw; Dickinson (Reid 77), Ford (Brown 77), Murray (Cross 30), R Gray, J Gray, Harley, Cowan (Denton 70), Ashe (Beattie 56).
New Zealand: Smith, Slade, Fekitoa (Williams 55), Crotty, Piutau; Carter 9Savea 55), Perenara; Moody (Crockett 51), Parsons (Coles 45), Faumuina, Thrush, Bird (Romano 51), McCaw, Cane, Vito (Messam 37).
Referee: Romain Poite (FFR). Attendance: 66,004.