SCOTLAND won this game but it was hard work against a predictably physical Tongan team. The only real surprise was that all of Tonga’s points came from the boot while Scotland scored five tries for the second time in three weeks and the match ended as a comfortable-enough victory, if any match against this opposition can be tagged “comfortable”.
The two teams were nip and tuck in the first half and only when Alex Dunbar claimed Scotland’s third try eight minutes after the break did the home team assert any dominance over their feisty opponents.
The Scots managed five but the try count could have been greater with a little more accuracy. Tim Visser latched on to Greig Laidlaw’s chip kick and almost got away but the Tongan full-back Vunga Lilo did just enough. On the stroke of half time Laidlaw himself was the beneficiary of a lineout move, only to drop the ball when the red sea parted for him, and shortly after the break Finn Russell held on to the ball with a huge overlap outside. Thankfully most of the decision-making was streets ahead of that one.
The World Cup winner Jake White has doubtless made his presence felt in the Tongan squad but the South African coach hasn’t improved their discipline. In the opening quarter Tonga conceded six penalties and their skipper Nili Latu was on the naughty step for two quick infringements bang in front of referee JP Doyle.
Instead of taking the points on offer Scotland opted instead to kick every one of those six penalties into the corner. It was Aberdeen 2012 all over again, only this time the story had a happier ending. Five times the Tongans repelled all boarders, legally or otherwise, before the Scots finally bullied their way over the try line at the sixth time of asking to the relief of almost everyone. Flanker Blair Cowan was the last man up with the ball and he walked away with the man of the match award to go with his try.
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Scotland won this game at least partly thanks to their lineout. The Scots took all their own ball and stole umpteen Tongan throws into the bargain, at least three in the first half and another six after the break. Every time the Tongans exerted some pressure they would lose a lineout and end up back where they started, deep inside their own half. The Scots’ scrum grew in stature as the game progressed. The Scots big men drove well in the loose, Jonny Gray and Johnnie Beattie both making more yards than they had any right to.
The final score looked unlikely in the first half when the Tongans played with pace, skill and, of course, their usual physicality. They were running hard and making headway. On the odd occasion the Scotland defence stopped them on the gain line, the canny stand-off Latiume Fosita sat back and fired the ball in behind the rush defence. The visitors enjoyed an early lead thanks to Fosita, who kicked four penalties in the first half hour from all corners of the Scottish half, but that was the start and finish of their points.
If there was a turning point it came around the half-hour mark with Tonga pressing hard to extend their 12-7 lead. They got their captain back as he swapped places in the sin bin with Scotland centre Alex Dunbar, who was guilty of a none-too-subtle tip-tackle.
A man to the good, the Tongans were pressing hard inside the Scotland 22 with the home team on the rack. Tommy Seymour jumped out of the line to intercept but mistimed his move, which only added to the pressure on his colleagues. A blindside tackle by Russell, no less, knocked the ball out of Tongan hands and Christmas had come early for Stuart Hogg, who scooped up the bobbling ball and raced 90 metres to score against the run of play. That settled the Scots, who never looked back, keeping the Tongans scoreless in the second half while grabbing three more good tries.
The first of them went to Dunbar eight minutes into the second half. Following a few forward charges, with Rob Harley in the thick of it, Russell switched play from open to blind and Dunbar showed strength and determination to cut inside one defender and hold off another before diving over in the corner. Laidlaw missed that conversion but added a brace of simple penalties a little later to put clear water between the teams.
With the benefit of a lead on the score board and the Tongans tiring fast, the boys in blue cut loose in the final quarter with some slick interplay between forwards and backs.
Geoff Cross barrelled over from short range to score Scotland’s fourth try on 67 minutes before Seymour grabbed the fifth, four minutes from time, after Russell’s cross-kick bounced off replacement Duncan Taylor and fell nicely for the winger. The final margin of victory was no less than the Scots deserved.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Cowan, Hogg, Dunbar, Cross, Seymour. Cons: Laidlaw (3). Pens: Laidlaw (2). Tonga: Pens: Fosita (4).
Scotland: Hogg, Seymour, Lamont (Taylor 73), Dunbar, Visser; Russell (Weir 76), Laidlaw (Cusiter 72); Dickinson (Reid 64), Ford (Brown 70), Cross (Grant 76), R Gray (Low 74), J Gray, Harley, Cowan, Beattie (Strokosch 64)
Tonga: Lilo, Halaifonua, Piutau, Paea, Vainikolo; Fosita, Takulua; Mailau (Lea 51), Lutui (Taione 54), Fa’anunu (Puafisi 51), Lokotui, Tu’ineau (Fa’aoso 64), Kalamafoni, Latu, Ma’afu (T Pole 64).
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU). Attendance: 16,026.
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