ALL week long, the Scotland camp had said they needed a convincing result and performance against Tonga to round off the Autumn Tests in style. They did not define the margin of victory, nor did they spell out the kind of showing they wanted: but if they had, it would all have borne a close resemblance to what transpired in Kilmarnock on Saturday.
Scotland 37-12 Tonga
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Cowan, Hogg, Dunbar, Cross, Seymour. Cons: Laidlaw (3). Pens: Laidlaw (2). Tonga: Pens: Fosita (4).
First of all, there was the result of this, the first major Test to be played on a synthetic surface. A more than healthy margin against opponents who had won on their last visit to Scotland, and who now pose a far more structured threat than they did then.
Then there was the try count. Five again, as it had been against Argentina. Remember when whole games went by with barely the sniff of a single try? When we could hardly hope for five touchdowns over the course of an entire Six Nations Championship? Those dismal days are long behind us now.
And the lineout. The problems there have evaporated too. Not only did Ross Ford and his jumpers achieve something close to perfection on their own ball, they severely disrupted Tonga’s too, stealing six throw-ins in the second half alone.
Those elements of the game were impressive, but it was the character shown by Scotland that stood out above all. No matter the final score, there were times in the first half when even a narrow home win was far from assured. Yet they showed the resilience to weather the storm, and in the second half they proved themselves smarter and fitter than their opponents, who failed to add to the dozen points they had earned, all from penalties, before the break.
Of course, no team ever improves in isolation, and as we look ahead to the Six Nations we should accept that Vern Cotter’s team still have some way to go before they can consider themselves better than the likes of England or Ireland. But they have come a long way in the last three weeks, and we can now look forward to next spring’s matches with qualified hope rather than a fear of impending doom.
Cotter may have been unduly modest when he said afterwards that his team had “ground out” a win, but he was certainly correct to highlight the amount of hard work that had to go into it. Indeed, throughout the first half the home defence had to graft merely to contain the dynamic Tongan attack.
It was Tonga who scored first through stand-off Latiume Fosita, who went on to score all of his team’s points. And it was Tonga who gained a moral victory after Nili Latu was yellow-carded following a series of offsides with quarter of an hour gone, because they were still in the lead when the openside returned to the field. Blair Cowan got the first try of the day from a lineout drive, and Greig Laidlaw converted to make it 7-3, but Fosita added two more penalties with his team still a man down.
When Alex Dunbar was sinbinned for a dangerous tackle, the Tongans initially took advantage, stretching their lead to 12-7 just before the half-hour mark. But then came the biggest play of the first half, in which Finn Russell ripped the ball clear in a tackle close to his own line, and Stuart Hogg collected to race the length of the pitch and scored beneath the posts.
A Laidlaw conversion made the half-time score 14-12, and a close second half seemed in prospect. Tonga should have regained the lead with a penalty five minutes after the restart, but once that chance had gone they were allowed precious few others by a home team determined to increase the tempo.
Dunbar stretched the lead to seven points with a try in the right corner, and although Laidlaw missed the conversion attempt he soon added two penalties.
With the lead close to two full scores, Tonga’s hopes of recovery were minimal. And once Geoff Cross forced his way over for another converted try 12 minutes from time, those hopes disappeared entirely.
There was still time for some more enterprising play from Scotland, and Russell rounded off an impressive individual performance by creating his team’s fifth and final try. With the referee playing advantage, the Glasgow stand-off launched a high punt into the dead ball area. Substitute Duncan Taylor managed to prevent a clear catch in goal and also appeared to palm the ball backwards, and Tommy Seymour seized on it to claim his third try in as many matches.
With Laidlaw having been replaced by Chris Cusiter, Russell took the conversion but missed. It was an insignificant blemish at the end of an important three weeks for the 22-year-old, who on this form could take extended ownership of the No 10 jersey for the rest of the decade and beyond.
Scotland as a whole, like Russell, have barely begun their evolution under Cotter. But, following on from the inspiring win over Argentina and the narrow defeat by the All Blacks, this match proved they are heading in the right direction with purpose and positivity.
Scotland: Hogg, Seymour, Lamont (Taylor 73), Dunbar, Visser; Russell (Weir 76), Laidlaw (Cusiter 72); Dickinson (Reid 64), Ford (Brown 70), Cross (Grant 76), R Gray (Low 74), J Gray, Harley, Cowan, Beattie (Strokosch 64)
Tonga: Lilo, Halaifonua, Piutau, Paea, Vainikolo; Fosita, Takulua; Mailau (Lea 51), Lutui (Taione 54), Fa’anunu (Puafisi 51), Lokotui, Tu’ineau (Fa’aoso 64), Kalamafoni, Latu, Ma’afu (T Pole 64).