IT IS all but inevitable, provided international rugby continues to be played for long enough, that Scotland will one day beat New Zealand. But this generation of players may never get a better chance than the one they failed to take, despite performing so well, on Saturday.
And they know it, too, hence the mixture of disappointment and frustration they showed at the end of the game. Previous Scotland sides have come off the pitch at the end of an All Blacks Test exhibiting bewilderment at the battering they have just taken, or sheer relief that the whole thing has ended. It is a measure of how much and how quickly this squad have improved that they were able instead to reflect ruefully not on the traditional gulf between the teams but on the narrowness of the defeat.
Much had been made before this second viagogo Autumn Test of the experimental nature of the New Zealand team, who had 13 changes from the one that began the previous week’s win at Twickenham. But it is important to remember that the Scotland squad, too, was hardly composed of grizzled veterans.
True, this was close to Vern Cotter’s ideal starting XV, while All Blacks coach Steve Hansen might regard no more than a handful of his beginning line-up as regular first choices. Even so, going into the game, ten of the Scotland squad had a caps total in single figures, which made this near thing all the more commendable.
It was the closest loss to the All Blacks since the third-place play-off at the 1991 World Cup – and it could have been closer still had Greig Laidlaw been on target with a penalty ten minutes from time. That kick would have given Scotland a 19-17 lead, and when it drifted to the right of the posts, memories were inevitably evoked of Peter Dods’ late conversion miss in the 1983 draw.
With so much time remaining, no canny gambler would have bet against the All Blacks regaining the lead – and, of course, they would only have needed a drop goal or penalty to do so – but it would, at the very least, have been interesting to see how they responded to the extra pressure.
In the end, Jeremy Thrush’s converted try stretched the winning margin from one point to eight and meant that Laidlaw’s miss did not quite take on the historic significance of Dods’.
Nonetheless, that one kick, while far from the only error in the game, was emblematic of an afternoon in which Scotland came so close to achieving something special.
They had conceded a total of 100 points in their previous two games against New Zealand. They had scored a total of nine in the three before those, including the infamous 40-0 home loss at the 2007 World Cup. In most of those matches and many others in a series dating back to 1905, they had been all but beaten well before half-time.
Here, by contrast, Scotland were always in the running until the final five minutes following Thrush’s touchdown. The eight-point deficit with which they finished was the widest at any point of the match. They were ahead for 15 first-half minutes; level for ten; and just a single point behind for well over half an hour in total.
“Missed opportunity” was the recurring phrase used by Cotter’s players after the game, but they will have no time to dwell on the disappointment. As they prepare to face Tonga in Kilmarnock on Saturday, training this week will be about learning the lessons, both good and bad, from the All Blacks game.
Scotland were never going to have the same number of chances that they made in scoring five tries against Argentina, but they still showed commendable invention in attack. And for the second week running, Tommy Seymour displayed his gift for opportunism, backing his instincts to intercept a Richie McCaw pass and run unopposed to the line.
Converted by Laidlaw, that gave the home team a 7-5 lead. As they did against the Pumas, they had hit back just a couple of minutes after conceding a try, the score in this case coming when No 8 Victor Vito was missed by one would-be tackler and capitalised on a slip by another defender to touch down in the left corner.
Mark Bennett, who was receiving treatment when Seymour scored, had to be replaced by Sean Lamont a minute later, and the hamstring injury he suffered will almost certainly rule him out of the Tonga match. Euan Murray was also forced off after half an hour, by which time a Dan Carter penalty had restored New Zealand’s lead. Carter added another three points just after Geoff Cross had replaced his fellow-prop, then Laidlaw and the All Blacks stand-off exchanged penalties in the minutes before the break to take the half-time score to 10-14.
The Scotland captain reduced it to 13-14 five minutes into the second half, but a wave of New Zealand substitutes began to increase the pressure. In two passages of play around the hour mark, the home team tried to run the ball from deep within their own 22, but ended up clearing with the boot. The attempt to attack with ball in hand was a sign of Scotland’s self-belief, but, with 20 minutes still on the clock it was probably a wrong option.
Five minutes later, Colin Slade, who had moved from the wing to his usual position of stand-off after Carter had gone off, stretched New Zealand’s advantage to four. Laidlaw replied immediately, and when he was given another attempt at goal shortly thereafter, the sense of expectation grew close to fever pitch in the near capacity crowd.
Even after Laidlaw’s miss, the All Blacks had a lot to do to make sure of the win, but they clearly took heart from the let-off, and Thrush’s close-range score off 11th-phase possession was a textbook illustration of how clinically they can finish games off.
Scotland 16-24 New Zealand
Scorers: Scotland: Try: Seymour. Con: Laidlaw. Pens: Laidlaw 3. New Zealand: Tries: Vito, Thrush. Con: Slade. Pens: Carter 3, Slade.
Scotland: Hogg; Maitland, Bennett (Lamont 12), Dunbar, Seymour; Russell, Laidlaw; Dickinson (Reid 77), Ford (Brown 77), Murray (Cross 30), R Gray, J Gray, Harley, Cowan (Denton 70), Ashe (Beattie 56).
New Zealand: Smith; Slade, Fekitoa (Williams 55), Crotty, Piutau; Carter (Savea 55), Perenara; Moody (Crockett 51), Parsons (Coles 45), Faumuina, Thrush, Bird (Romano 51), McCaw, Cane, Vito (Messam 37).