EARNING his 50th cap, Richie Gray was given the honour of running out on to the pitch ahead of everyone else to mark the occasion. He looked horribly ill at ease but not nearly as uncomfortable as every other Scot at some point in a first half that was dominated by Samoa.
The Scots lost the try count, they were behind at half-time and they could so easily have lost this match but if coaches mutter about performance when they lose, they inevitably focus on the result after a victory, especially one in which the team played below par.
“I’m really proud of the boys,” insisted Vern Cotter in the post-mortem. “They were down at half-time but showed the character and spirit to come back.
“It showed just how much it means to them and I’m really happy for the group as they worked so hard to get there.
“That is phase one and we need to move to phase two but there were some really positive things.
“We took the scrum at the end and it paid off with Greig’s try and that showed the confidence and spirit we have from this group.
“We saw things from Samoa which we hadn’t seen from them so far but we adapted and got through in the end.”
As Cotter said, this was an entirely different Samoan side to any other that has performed, or rather underperformed, at this tournament to date.
Their own skipper Kahn Fotuali’i alluded to it when he spoke of “bringing back some pride in the shirt and the Samoan rugby style”.
They made life extremely difficult for the Scots and if it hadn’t been for the Duracell energy of David Denton – who made one full-stretch try-saving tackle in the second half – WP Nel and John Hardie, then the result would have been very different. These three especially fronted up to the physical challenge and someone in the forwards had to because the Scottish backs were little more than table decorations for all the impact they had with the ball in hand.
Finn Russell’s return to action was keenly anticipated but the stand-off made little impact amidst all the heavy traffic.
Sean Maitland actually played pretty well but one totally misdirected pass to absolutely no one suggested that the enormity of the occasion got to him. Matt Scott and Mark Bennett tackled tirelessly but offered little in offence and the only exception was skipper Greig Laidlaw.
You can argue with some of his decision making but his lineout option in the first half paid dividends, with a try for Hardie, as did his scrum option late in the game, with a try for himself, eventually. Moreover, Laidlaw personally provided 26 points, every one of them vital, so it’s little wonder that Cotter was singing his praises.
“His performance speaks for itself,” said the coach about the man sitting not four feet away. “He’s an outstanding guy, there’s no doubt about that. I don’t need to say too much about his qualities as a guy and a leader and he also has others backing him up.
“As a kicker and as a player he’s done very well. We felt when Samoa had the ball they were particularly good with it so we had to dominate set-plays and hang on to the ball so they couldn’t get a hold of it.
“We had to be realistic about our own strengths and exploit them where we felt we could score points and it worked out well. Hats off to Samoa as they were efficient when they were in our half and scored points when they were there.”
Scotland now face Australia in the Twickenham quarter-final, which takes place next Sunday, so Cotter’s squad have the luxury of a seven-day turnaround to lick their wounds and rest some battered bodies.
The Scots toughed out a result yesterday in Newcastle but they will want to showcase their full range of skills next weekend, including 15-man attacking rugby that has been Cotter’s signature dish.
They will surely be better next Sunday: they will need to be.