Spirit carries Scots through amid Samoan onslaught

Sean Maitland, looking lively with the ball in hand, bursts clear at an electric St James' Park. Picture: Jane Barlow
Sean Maitland, looking lively with the ball in hand, bursts clear at an electric St James' Park. Picture: Jane Barlow
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In the eight years since Scotland last made the knock-out stages of a World Cup they have lost 32 of 40 Six Nations games played, were turfed out in the pool stages of the last tournament in New Zealand and have suffered a few more disappointing days on top of that to boot.

Put in that context, Saturday’s achievement in beating Samoa, even if only just, and squeaking into the last eight was more than worthy of celebration.

Nobody needs reminding that there are some teams who would love to be there, expected even, and won’t be.

After Saturday’s pulsating heart-stopper at St James’ Park, the Scotland head coach Vern Cotter spoke of his pride in the players’ spirit and paid full credit to Samoa, who more than lived up to the danger warnings and launched an unshackled and fearsome assault which came within a whisker of inflicting an awful bodyblow on Scottish rugby.

But, as Scotland know only too well, within a whisker is not enough and it is Cotter’s men who head south to face tournament second favourites Australia at Twickenham on Sunday. And now, you suspect, the plaudits and pats on the back will turn to something a bit more forthright as the Kiwi coach reviews a game which almost went so disastrously wrong.

The more the Scots seem to talk about fixing their slow starts, the more sluggish they become and the get out of jail free cards have now been well and truly used up. Similar slackness against the slick Aussies will see that game run away quicker than a Kanagaroo from a bush fire.

After leaking four tries in the first World Cup warm-up Test in mid-August, Scotland’s defence has looked impressive. Last week’s three conceded against the Springboks was the first time they had lost more than one try since that evening in Dublin. On Saturday, however, things fell apart alarmingly as the Samoans looked like they would score with any sustained bit of pressure they could exert. The Wallabies may not have the physicality of the islanders but they have, arguably, the most creative attack in the world right now. And a watertight defence, as they proved holding out Wales with 13 men on Saturday. It will be all diplomacy coming out of the Aussie camp this week but, privately, they will watch footage from St James’ and salivate like it’s a Bondi barbie.

Samoa ran amok in that first half with tries from Tusi Pisi, Ma’atulimanu Leiataua and the sensational Rey Lee-Lo in a thrilling first half, which must have had the tiny Pacific nation’s fans tearing their hair out. Where was this type of display when they really needed it?

Scores from Tommy Seymour and John Hardie and the boot of skipper Greig Laidlaw kept Scotland clinging on amidst the carnage.

Even when Scotland did get things right, familiar failings at the restart continue to haunt and hand the initiative back to the opposition just when the boot should be on them. Metaphorically speaking that is, not in the way Ryan Wilson applied it for his deserved yellow card. Frustrating indiscipline from the blindside which may well have cost him his place in the team for Twickenham.

Thankfully the Samoan discipline was no better and they racked up a suicidal penalty count in the second half which, combined with a tighter forward display and a rolling back of the first-half territorial deficit, saw the Scots home. Skipper Laidlaw’s decisive score sparked bedlam in an electrically-charged stadium packed to the rafters with Scots. But, even then, Motu Matu’u dived over to create a predictably agonising denouement.

So lots for Cotter and his coaching staff to chew over this week but it would be wrong not to highlight some good points amid all the nerve jangling. The indefatigable Hardie was immense once again and a deserved man of the match, though Lee-Lo ran him close. Sean Maitland, whose attacking qualities have been a bit overshadowed of late by the likes of Finn Russell, Seymour, Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg, looked lively and dangerous with ball in hand.

And then a word about Laidlaw, who received warm praise from his coach after the match. Seven days previously, the scrum-half cut a dejected figure next to Cotter after a below-par performance against South Africa in which he had been culpable for one of the Boks’ tries and sin-binned for a petulant off-the-ball tackle on Bryan Habana. He responded superbly on Saturday, quite literally dragging his men over the line and the captain and his troops deserved to bask briefly in the glow of a target achieved.

Australia will be a whole new ball game but Scotland are in it to win it and that will do for now.