SCOTLAND are through to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 2007 but not without adding umpteen grey hairs to the heads of every one of their long-suffering fans inside St James’ Park.
If it was hard work for the players, this match was pure torture for the faithful who experienced both extremes of emotions: mostly misery during the game, an unbelievable high only at the final whistle.
Late in the game the Scots finally seemed to exert some kind of control over events and when Greig Laidlaw darted over the line, needing every inch of his 5ft 9in height to reach it, the team in blue had a ten-point lead with six minutes to play. And still there was drama to come.
The Scots lost the restart, as they had done almost every time in this match, and the Samoans laid siege to the Scottish line before replacement hooker Motu Matu’u barrelled over from short range, the try was converted and the Scots were forced to play out a nervy final 80 seconds – that felt like 80 minutes – before the referee signalled no side.
This exhilarating match was played in reverse. It ended as a cagey, cautious cat-and-mouse affair, as most matches start, but only after a helter skelter first 40 which was played at breakneck speed and produced no fewer than five tries.
The Samoans have had a miserable World Cup but they made amends of sorts yesterday afternoon, saving the best till last and going out with a bang. They sliced open the Scots defence at will, especially in the first half, the Scots falling off tackles, missing 28 of the 90 (30 per cent) they were asked to make.
In an astonishing purple patch, the Samoans scored three tries between the tenth and 20th minutes and threatened to run away with this match. They could have had a fourth a little later but for a timely intervention by the television match official. Scotland didn’t know what had hit them or where it had come from.
Centre Rey Lee-Lo was the pick of a very handy bunch, scoring one try and finding space where none existed. Early in the second half he broke from deep after a neat off-load and, had his pass found winger Paul Perez, Scotland would have been standing behind the sticks once again.
Defence coach Matt Taylor must have been having kittens in the coaches’ box because the Scots were wholly unable to slow the Samoans’ ball at the breakdown and when this backline worked up a head of steam they proved almost impossible to stop. They won the try count and did everything but win this match. Goodness only knows what was said midweek but this lot looked totally unrelated to the soft-centred side that capitulated to Japan.
So confident were Samoa that at the very death of the first half with three points on offer from a simple penalty, they decided to run the ball against the porous Scotland defence that was only saved by a handling error. In contrast the Scots backline barely threw a punch, although Tommy Seymour was alert in picking off a stray Samoan pass for the Scots’ opening try.
Despite the return to the team of openside fetcher John Hardie, the Scots lost the battle of the breakdown. They also lost the re-starts, failing to secure the first three kick-offs from the Samoans who reclaimed their own kick, earning high field position, and every one of them led to points: one penalty and two tries.
The Scots played their part in this end-of-season-Barbarian-style game, although whether that was wise was questionable. They only kept hold of Samoa’s coat tails thanks to their own set piece, scrum and lineout, and the islanders’ chronic indiscipline – Samoa conceded 19 penalties in all. Laidlaw filled his boots, with five penalties, three conversions and a crucial try late in the game for a personal points haul of 26.
It has proved a problem for the Scots in the past but the driving maul dug Scotland out of a hole yesterday in Newcastle. When the men in blue were not milking penalties from the tactic, man-of-the-match Hardie came up with a precious try from one in the first half despite his fellow flanker Ryan Wilson sitting helpless in the sin-bin. The first-half flurry of scores left Samoa with a 26-23 lead at the break and Laidlaw had already ignored the chance to level the scores, firing one into the corner to no effect, when the scrum-half eventually kicked his fourth and fifth penalties between the 50th and 53rd minutes, the second of which edged the Scots ahead on the scoreboard for the first time in this match.
Slowly and uncertainly the Scots tightened their grip on events in the final quarter, most of which was played inside the Samoan half. Laidlaw nipped over the line with six minutes to go – which may have been enough against anyone else, but after all their tribulations this Samoan side had a point to prove and they certainly managed that much.
Samoa: Nanai-Williams, Perez, G Pisi, Lee-Lo, Autagavaia; T Pisi (Fa’apale 71), Fotuali’i; Taulafo (Perenise 60), Leiataua (Matu’u 73), Johnson (Afatia 60), Paulo, Thompson (Levave 28), Fa’asavalu, Lam, Fa’osillva (Tuilagi 60).
Scotland: Hogg (Lamont 70), Maitland, Bennett, Scott (Horne 75), Seymour; Russell, Laidlaw; Dickinson, Ford (Brown 65), Nel, R Gray, J Gray (Swinson 62), Wilson (Strauss 50), Hardie, Denton.
Referee: J Peyper (S Africa). Attendance: 51,982