SCOTLAND beat Canada by a short nose in Toronto and, not for the first time, they had the unerringly accurate boot of Greig Laidlaw to thank for their victory.
The little scrum-half does not offer the running threat of some of his Scottish rivals, or of his opposite number on Saturday for that matter, but he kept his head to claim one conversion and three penalties on the day to see his side home. Stuart Hogg added one long-range kick for good measure.
Grant Gilchrist scored Scotland’s only try of the match late in the first half and it came from a driving lineout, probably the only driving maul from the Scots all afternoon that went anywhere other than backwards. Canada responded with one superb score from Ospreys winger Jeff Hassler, made by centre Ciaran Hearn, and they threatened the Scotland line on numerous occasions thereafter, only desperate Scottish defence keeping them out. Veteran full-back James Pritchard kicked four penalties, hit the post with another and missed his only conversion attempt. It proved costly, two points being the difference between the teams come the final whistle.
When head coach Vern Cotter sifts through the wreckage of this victory he will need an electron microscope to spot any positives in amongst the debris. Scotland won the match and will head to Argentina with a 100 per cent record of two from two from North America and...well, that is about that.
The Scots were second best in almost every facet of play, with the possible exception of the set scrum where Gordon Reid seemed to have the whip hand over the Canadian tighthead. Other than that the Canadians were much the better team.
Canada bossed the lineouts, despite Scotland fielding twin giants in Richie Gray and Gilchrist, and they out-mauled the Scottish forwards. The Canadian midfield looked slick and dangerous while their energetic little scrum-half Phil Mack had a field day. He probably made more line breaks on his own than the entire Scotland team managed.
“Good things today, probably not so much,” skipper Laidlaw mused out loud after the match. “We made a few mistakes, which is annoying because we trained well, but we managed to get across the line which is the important thing. We did get bust a few times but we scrambled well and that saved our bacon.”
The match turned on the New Zealand referee’s decision just five minutes from time. Mike Fraser was playing a penalty advantage for Canada with the kick well within reach of the sticks, when flanker Jebb Sinclair ran over Ruaridh Jackson who was on for Finn Russell.
Jackson took a forearm to the face and, whether it was deliberate or not, the referee went upstairs to check with the American TMO Davey Ardrey before flashing a red card. The replays suggest that it was no worse than you see umpteen times in every game.
The loss of a man was inconsequential, Canada had less than five minutes to play, but the referee reversed his penalty and awarded it to Scotland instead for the foul. The visitors cleared the immediate danger before Hogg’s scorching break ensured that the final minute of play took place 90 yards from the Scotland posts.
“As soon as the play stopped I made sure the referee was going upstairs to check,” said Laidlaw when quizzed about the red card. “I thought he led with the arm and it looked a bit ugly when he caught him early with the arm to Jacko’s head. He [the referee] went upstairs and he checked it out so he had enough time to make a decision and that was the decision that he came up with.
“I kept saying to our players, ‘Boys just stay calm, just talk to each other, stay in the systems’, and a couple of times we fell out the systems which is why we put ourselves under pressure.
“I was pleased at the way we held on because I said to the boys if we keep giving away silly penalties and giving them field position, we are going to get beat. The boys took it on [board] in the end, we eventually stopped giving them daft penalties and field position and we clawed our way into the game with penalties. Hoggy had a wonderful kick and a wonderful break just at the end just to make sure we were outside our half.”
Elsewhere Cotter was concerned by the mounting injuries list which is going to test the Scots in the second half of this marathon tour every bit as much as the Argentinian and South African opposition. Jackson suffered a suspected concussion and all three breakaways left the field.
Play was held up for ten minutes in the first half while Alasdair Strokosch’s neck injury was assessed. As a precaution the flanker was taken to hospital and is almost certainly out of the tour although he was released later on Saturday evening.
Johnnie Beattie injured his knee and Kelly Brown tore his bicep. This resulted in Kevin Bryce, who bulked up when moving from the back to the front row of the scrum, making his international debut on the flank where he started.
He did pretty well all told...another small positive on a day when they were all but impossible to find.