THERE was no disgrace in Scotland’s final autumn Test defeat to Australia, but no shining glory of a third win on the trot against the Wallabies either, as the visitors clung on to prove that there is no substitute for quality.
As difficult as it may be for Scots to accept, the weather is a genuine limiter of a team’s skills and so, when these two nations came together again on a cold, but dry and clear Edinburgh evening, thousands of miles removed from the torrential downpour that engulfed their last encounter in 2012, Scotland’s challenge was always going to be stiffer. That Kelly Brown’s side hung in there and ensured that the crowd remained on the edge of their seats until the final whistle, never more than a converted score separating the teams, owed everything to the guts, workrate and defensive strength of a team desperate to bridge the gap in quality.
Plenty was made in the build-up of the players suspended by the Wallabies and, with the likes of James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale, Pat McCabe, Scott Higginbotham, Tevita Kuridrani and Matt Toomua also out, it was imagined, hoped perhaps, that Scotland would face a second-string touring side.
But that was far from the case. This was almost entirely the first-choice pack Australia have played the year with and, in half-backs Will Genia and Quade Cooper, centre Christian Leali’ifano and Israel Folau at full-back, it was a back line with world-leading Test performers.
And yet Scotland, who lack the depth to cover the loss of Stuart Hogg, Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar, Tim Visser and Ross Rennie in the same way, went toe-to-toe with the Wallabies.
The scrum held up well, Brown provided a sterling captain’s lead with terrific workrate around the tackle area and Jim Hamilton marked his 50th Test with a bristling display on the front foot, closely followed by impressive youngster Grant Gilchrist. David Denton is really shaping up as a No 8 with punch and Greig Laidlaw’s superb goal-kicking ultimately threatened a repeat of previous wins by keeping Scotland in touch throughout.
But, for all the endeavour and improvement on the previous week’s 28-0 hammering by South Africa, still there was that difference in quality, decision-making and skills that ultimately decided the outcome.
Folau exposed one moment of frailty in the Scottish defence for the game’s opening try after 25 minutes, seizing on the slightest of openings on the home 22 to attack Scottish prop Ryan Grant off an inside pass from Cooper. As the prop slid off the 6ft 5in full-back, Folau cruised to the line.
Scotland created chances with several line breaks but lacked the same incision. In the final minutes of the first half, Johnnie Beattie broke from a ruck and cantered 30 metres across halfway and into the Wallaby half. Showing cute awareness and handling skills, he fed Maitland inside and the full-back skipped past one defender cutting across the scrambling Australian defence.
He drew Folau before passing wide to Sean Lamont but, where a pass in front of the winger was vital, Maitland’s pass instead went behind and forced him to check slightly. Folau was motoring to him by this stage and, although Lamont tried to go for the left-hand corner, he was hesitant and the full-back halted him a metre short.
Hooper slowed the ball well at the ensuing ruck, allowing his defence to get back and, while Scotland battered away at the Wallaby line, they could find no way through.
Lamont admitted afterwards that he had wanted to step inside Folau, but felt that the soft pitch, infested by worms recently, had prevented that.
He said: “I had the angle but you can’t really step much on that pitch. It’s a nightmare. It’s an odd circumstance with the worms getting in and it has made it difficult underfoot, but it’s the same for both teams.
“You can see what’s happening in the scrum too. Speaking to the boys, they felt we had a dominant scrum and were getting a good hit but, when it came to putting a drive, on the carpet ripped up. But it affects both teams, not just one side. It is disappointing, one of these unlucky things.”
That was a big chance missed, one that it felt like Australia would not have passed up, and the Wallabies took advantage immediately after half-time.
Nick de Luca chased a Weir kick, but made no impact on catcher Folau, whose Aussie Rules skills were evident as he claimed the high ball and darted into space. The back row worked tirelessly, but Scotland’s breakdown skills were not good enough to slow Australia’s attack, and, from Folau’s burst, the tourists drove momentum through several phases with quick ball, pulling Scotland’s defence this way and that, until they isolated big forwards and Cooper went for the jugular, attacking the space and feeding left wing Chris Feauai-Sautia, who shrugged off despairing tackles by Maitland and Duncan Taylor to score in the right-hand corner.
Skills, decision-making and exploiting Scottish weakness. Clinical.
The final key period that settled the outcome was late in the second half, as Scotland ramped up the pressure with great ambition and effort. Australia should have been home and dry, but Christian Leali’ifano missed three penalty kicks at goal, leaving the door open for Scotland but, once again, when it came to applying the finish, the hosts came up short.
This time, great teamwork resulted in a lineout just over ten metres from the visitors’ line, but the jumpers were slow in getting Hamilton up, while Rob Simmons and Ben Mowen flew into the air and robbed Scottish ball.
There were other aspects that Scots might bemoan. South African referee Jaco Peyper had a pretty good game, but, after warning Australia for a series of cynical and successful attempts to slow Scotland’s ball at the ruck, he duly warned them again after two more. A yellow card for chief culprit, openside Michael Hooper, would have meant he was not there to help Folau stop Lamont later.
Hooper and the Wallabies kept on Peyper’s right side in the third quarter, so the referee backed off again with a string of infringements as Scotland built momentum furiously in the final 20 minutes.
Australia did go down to 14 men after 47 minutes when lock Rob Simmons was sin-binned for throwing two punches at Moray Low, and connecting with the second, but Australia dug in and Simmons returned with the score having moved from 18-12 to 21-15.
There was to be no more scoring after the 50-minute mark, Scotland lost a concussed Duncan Taylor, although Max Evans was a lively replacement but, while the great Murrayfield support roared on their team through an exciting finale, the lack of key skills at crucial moments ensured the Hopetoun Cup was won by Australia for the first time since 2006.