Scotland show hard evidence of new incisiveness

Playing together for the first time in a competitive match, Richie and Jonny Gray prepare for a line-out. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Playing together for the first time in a competitive match, Richie and Jonny Gray prepare for a line-out. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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DAYS out at the national stadium do not get much better than this, and nor do home debuts for national coaches.

Scotland 41-31 Argentina

Scorers: Scotland – Tries: R Gray, J Gray, Maitland, Hogg, Seymour. Cons: Laidlaw (4), Weir. Pens: Laidlaw (2).

Argentina – Tries: Desio, penalty try, Cubelli (2). Cons: Sanchez, Hernandez (3). Pen: Sanchez.

Throughout the build-up to this first Autumn Test, the Scotland squad had spoken eloquently and enthusiastically about the self-belief that Vern Cotter had given them, and in the event they more than matched their promising words with a first-rate attacking display which disposed of Argentina far more comprehensively than the final score suggests.

Given that Scotland had lost their last four home games against the Pumas, this five-try victory was impressive enough in itself.

But what was really encouraging was the manner in which it was achieved: unrelenting, hard-headed, and, if not yet completely clinical, at least far more incisive than has been the case for several years.

Two aspects of the contest, both in the first half, were ideal illustrations of how the mindset has improved under Cotter, for whom this was a fourth win out of five matches since taking office just before the summer tour. First, there was the rapidity with which Scotland hit back after going seven points down very early on, drawing level with the first of five tries just a few minutes later.

Then there was the even speedier response when Argentina had a man yellow-carded, as, within a minute, Jonny Gray followed older brother Richie in touching down.

So often in the past, Scotland’s self-belief has been rocked by a mishap such as the one which gifted Javier Ortega Desio the opening score. Just as frequently, they have struggled throughout a ten-minute sinbinning for the opposition to turn a one-man advantage into points.

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On both counts, then, this was a significant step up to a greater level of mental strength.

It was a pass from Greig Laidlaw, sent spinning backwards in a tackle, that gave the South Americans that first converted try. If that could be classed as a mistake by the scrum-half and captain, it must have been almost the only one, as he went on to put in a commanding performance.

The Gloucester No 9 was involved in just about every significant move by Scotland, not only keeping up the pace of multi-phase attacks with swift recycling, but also, less predictably, making breaks that left the Argentines flat-footed.

A few minutes after converting Jonny Gray’s try to put Scotland ahead at 14-10 for the first time in the match, Laidlaw took a tap penalty and burst through the middle, cleverly angling his run to get to within passing distance of Sean Maitland. The right-winger still had some work to do, but also took a good line to speed past the last defender and touch down.

Now 21-10 up, and with Juan Imhoff still in the bin for a shoulder charge on Tommy Seymour, Scotland should have taken even greater advantage of their numerical superiority. But first Jonny Gray opted against an inside pass to Mark Bennett that would surely have resulted in a try for the debutant centre, and then Alasdair Dickinson passed forward to Maitland when the latter had the line at his mercy.

Even so, when a Laidlaw penalty made the half-time lead 24-10, that margin of two full scores was no more than the home team merited. And, when Stuart Hogg scored two minutes into the second half from another Laidlaw break through the middle, any notion of an Argentine recovery was all but stifled.

Another Laidlaw penalty gave Scotland a 24-point lead going into the final quarter, but the match then became bogged down as referee Wayne Barnes struggled to get scrums started cleanly. When the Englishman yellow-carded Rob Harley – harshly, it appeared, for interference in the air at a lineout – Argentina at last exerted some sustained pressure, claiming a converted penalty try as a reward.

With less than ten minutes left, a finely-judged interception by Seymour gave Scotland their fifth try of the afternoon. Converted by substitute Duncan Weir, that made it 41-17 and, for a time, the record score for the fixture of 49-3 – from 1990, the last time the Scots had beaten Argentina at home – looked under threat.

Instead, it was the visitors who finished the stronger, thanks in part to another yellow card, this time for Jim Hamilton a mere five minutes after he had come off the bench. Binned after a general warning to Scotland, Hamilton left the pitch as Harley was preparing to return, so the home team did not have to play with 13 men at any point. Even with 14, they could not prevent two late tries from replacement scrum-half Tomas Cubelli. The first was an acrobatic dive over the top of a ruck, the second a smart finish from close to the line right on time.

Those closing stages of the game were irritatingly scrappy from a spectator’s point of view, with the concession of 14 points being unsatisfactory for a Scotland team who had defended with such vigour and accuracy up to that point. But it cast no more than a momentary pall over what was, overall, a vastly encouraging performance.

Indeed, as Cotter and his squad prepare for Saturday’s visit of the All Blacks, those late lapses will surely be used as a reminder that, while Scotland have made significant progress over the past few months, they still have some way to travel. Cotter is big on humility and his work with the squad this week will focus in part on some of the fine-tuning required to maintain progress. New Zealand will be daunting opponents and favourites to win comfortably. But, while some precise details of this new-look Scotland need working on, there can be little doubt that the broad picture is taking on a pleasing shape.

Scotland: Hogg; Maitland, Bennett, Dunbar, Seymour; Laidlaw (Pyrgos 63; Laidlaw 78), Russell (Weir 64); Dickinson (Reid 68), Ford (Lawson 63), Murray (Cross 70), R Gray (Hamilton 68), J Gray, Harley, Cowan (Strokosch 60), Ashe.

Argentina: Tuculet; Imhoff, Bosch (Agulla 61), Hernandez, Montero; Sanchez (Iglesias 52), Landajo (Cubelli 57); Ayerza (Paz 61), Creevy, Herrera (Chaparro 45), Lavanini, Guillemain, Baez (Isa 16), Desiq, Senatore.

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