SCOTLAND’S maddening propensity for taking one step forward and then promptly shooting themselves in the feet that took them there was revisited at Murrayfield, the memory of the hat-trick of summer victories hewn from a granite-like defence now an afterthought.
New Zealand, inspired by the near-effortless brilliance of Dan Carter, have never scored more points in Edinburgh and what was even more chilling was the feeling that they completed the rout while never really in top gear.
After Scotland’s brave resistance in Australia in June, this was an experience that has sent them spinning back to square one. It would be easy to focus on Carter and his wondrous creativity, not to mind his remarkable boot that launched successful conversions from all corners of the stadium, but the fact is that the creativity was helped by a Scottish defence that was a calamitous mess at the most critical times in the Test.
In the aftermath, Robinson spoke of “big holes” and “soft drifts”, mentioned that his players sat back and gave the Kiwis time and space and he was right. For all the fighting talk in the preamble, Scotland failed to bring with them one of the most basic requirements if you’re hoping to live with these All Blacks; bloody-mindedness from first minute to last.
They had it early on, no question. And in that regard it’s not the despondency that kills you, it’s the hope. Hope when New Zealand started sluggishly; losing a lineout, getting turned over at a ruck, missing a penalty, knocking-on carelessly. And that intercept? Hope again. There is no bad time to latch on to an intercept, but when Carter is the man you’re intercepting and a try is the end result, then that is manna from heaven, a gift from the Gods.
Hope? It blew in to Murrayfield after 13 minutes when Tim Visser scored and it blew right back out again in the minutes that followed, devastating minutes that brought one head-wrecking Scottish error after another, a mistake mountain that helped the Kiwis score four first-half tries including three in eight nightmarish and game-defining minutes, some of them masterfully put together, others presented on a plate by defensive lapses that would have Robinson and his management team hiding under their chairs in the coaches box.
Scotland were brighter and more clinical in attack than they have been for a long time. If you’re looking for optimism ahead of the Springboks next week, then there it is. The upside came in the shape of their three tries and the attacking nous of Visser and the certainty that South Africa, lacking the weaponry of the All Blacks, will be more route one rather than route one, two, three, four…
Visser is a sharp tool in attack. Defensively, he is a work in progress, but there is no doubting his predatory instincts and that is a major plus for Robinson. The team, finally, has found a finisher. Visser has played three Tests and has scored four tries. After barely a wet week in the team, he is already joint third highest try-scorer in the squad, only four tries behind Sean Lamont who has 65 more caps. There you go. Dine out on that crumb.
Robinson has summoned up the memory of November, 2010, when his team got eaten alive in week one by the All Blacks before gathering themselves in victory against the Springboks a week later. South Africa will bring a more basic gameplan to Murrayfield and will be beatable if Scottish heads are right. That’s a big “if”. No side can win matches against the world’s elite when defending as Scotland did. New Zealand don’t need a team to make things easy for them; they’re perfectly able to engineer tries on the back of their own genius, but if a sucker is determined to be suckered, then what are they going to do? They’re going to say thanks very much and pile up the points.
Four minutes after Visser’s first try put Scotland into the rarefied air of a lead against the All Blacks, they fell off the pace and fell out of the tackle, Carter making one break and then another, swatting Scottish jerseys along the way before Israel Dagg was put away in the corner. This is when the alarm bells started to ring, a cue for consolidation and concentration from Scotland, a period when they had to batten down the hatches against a New Zealand team that were beginning to throw some shapes in attack after a faltering beginning.
Scotland needed to get through this spell, but they couldn’t do it. They needed to get on the ball but they couldn’t find it, needed to get the Strokoschs and the Hamiltons and the Browns into the rucks and disrupt like hell, but they couldn’t do that either. In eight minutes, New Zealand scored three tries and for all the feelgood of the hosts scoring three tries against the greatest team in the world, the Test match was over by half-time. That’s the truth. It was done in those eight minutes at the end of the first half.
The galling thing is that it was avoidable. Or, at least, part of it was avoidable. Julian Savea’s first try was an example of the All Blacks at their best, a try that saw them work Scotland to a standstill before breaking away down the left wing where Visser was isolated and alone and helpless in the face of Savea and a supporting runner just in case Visser made his tackle, which he did not.
Now the blunders came in waves. Scotland got the restart all wrong and two minutes after Savea’s try there was one for his opposite wing, Cory Jane, created on the altar of quick ruck ball, fast hands and a precise finish from Jane. This is what New Zealand do to you. A game can become a rout in the blink of an eye. One minute you are level on the scoreboard and the next time you look you are 17 points down as Scotland were after the Jane score.
All week, Robinson and his team stressed the need to reduce their error count to half-nothing. Instead, it multiplied. When they needed to be tight and focused they were ruinously loose. Andrew Hore’s try typified it. The fact that Jane wriggled out of trouble on the right wing was bad enough, but the sight of Hore brushing off Geoff Cross and spinning over was a cringe-making moment. Carter’s conversion made it 34-10 to New Zealand.
What we’d heard from the home team was that this game was not going to be a repeat of the last time they faced New Zealand, that lessons had been learned from that wretched first half of 2010 when Scotland shipped 28 points. Now, there are new lessons to learn. Scotland conceded 34 points in the first 40 minutes yesterday and another 17 points in the second half, which could have been more had they needed them. For all Richie McCaw’s assertions that it was a tough game out there, the All Blacks had gears they never required to use on the day.
A repeat of two years ago, then. How Robinson will be praying that the similarities of the first game of that autumn series are repeated in the second, when South Africa return on Saturday.