IN THE aftermath, Scott Johnson spoke of naivety and character and how Scotland were undone by the former but never relented in the latter. That was probably about right.
“We showed grit and we didn’t wilt,” said the Scotland coach. “We were under pressure and we never succumbed. I’ve got mixed emotions. I liked the effort. I can’t say that they didn’t give me their all. The game is also about character and we’ve got plenty of that.”
So much of what Scotland did was impressive, but so much was self-defeating, the latter usually following the former in quick succession.
With five minutes left Scotland had done wonderfully to get themselves an attacking lineout in the Australian 22. The game was still there for them. A converted try and the Test was won. Such a pressure moment on their own throw and such an error. A head-wrecking lost lineout at precisely the moment when they needed to be icy cool. It was a bit of a recurring theme yesterday.
This was the naivety Johnson mentioned. A lost lineout compounded by a loss of discipline in conceding a penalty followed by the Wallabies clearing the danger and winning the Test. Scotland need to grow up – and fast.
“We let ourselves down at times with the [lineout] call and jump and technique,” said Johnson.
“We couldn’t repeat our good work. But you can’t buy this experience. I’m encouraged by the character but the naivety of some of the younger ones has to be expected.”
There was hope yesterday, though. A sickness at the end, but a step forward after the desolation of last Sunday. A week ago this Australian pack, inspired by the Michael Hooper masterclass, wiped Ireland away at the breakdown, but Scotland were belligerent and made the collisions akin to a war zone, driving low and hard as if Jim Telfer had come back out of retirement for the week and beasted them on the training ground.
Scotland made it a contest with their thunder and their fury, but the class was Australia’s.
All the grunt in the world couldn’t compensate for Scotland’s lack of precision in attack. Such things come naturally to Australia. To Israel Folau and Quade Cooper in particular. You can give Scotland two, three, four chances in these high-octane games and, too often, they don’t take even one of their opportunities.
The Wallabies, meanwhile, gave an object lesson in ruthless finishing yesterday.
At least the belligerence returned. Jim Hamilton had a big game and in taking the fight to the visitors he had plenty of soldiers.
The Scotland back row was an odd blend of three No.8s playing against a unit of specialists, three Aussies who knew what their job was and weren’t trying to be anything they were not, as Kelly Brown was in trying to play openside and Johnnie Beattie was in attempting to play blindside.
The three of them were excellent. When Scotland faltered it was these key men in the pack who helped pick them back up and go again.
There was cynicism, too. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of cynicism in Test-match rugby. The Wallabies are geniuses at it. Scotland used to be one of the world’s leading nations in the art of legal cheating, that twisted morality as perfected by John Jeffrey in his heyday. Namely, it ain’t wrong if the referee doesn’t see it.
One such moment happened midway through that first half when the Australians had stretched Scotland to the point of breaking, one more recycle probably opening up the space for the opening try. Just as they were about to strike, Scotland killed it. David Denton, who also had a big game, and Hamilton doing the damage. It was as clear a penalty as you’ll see but the logic of the penalised would have been better three points lost than five or seven.
Things have improved week-on-week, but certain things cannot possibly change so quickly. Scotland’s lineout had been going well for close to half an hour until one error out of touch, one lost throw and one display of the most clinical finishing did for them.
This is what Australia do so well. At their best, when Quade Cooper is playing flat to the gainline, drawing in the cover and offloading with precision, then the Wallabies are as good as anybody in the world.
For the first try, Cooper’s innate sense of when a chance is on and Israel Folau’s angle of running were sublime. Folau spotted Ryan Grant isolated, went on his run, was spotted by Cooper and, bang, the try followed.
Contrast that to Scotland’s best moment of the first half, a terrific break from Beattie who found
Sean Maitland running free outside him.
With the Wallabies scrambling back into their own 22 to recover their ground, Maitland’s pass to Sean Lamont had to be out in front of the wing, had to be the kind of delivery that allowed Lamont to explode on to it, but it was inches out.
Lamont had to check ever-so-slightly when he received the pass and those milliseconds were ruinous. In such a game, these moments served as a psychological howitzer.
Australia once again displayed the art of finishing a few minutes into the new half and Cooper’s part in it was wondrous.
Not many stand-offs in the world game can stay in the moment and make good decisions on the gainline the way Cooper does.
It was the stand-off whose footwork created the space in the first instance, it was Cooper who then looped around to rejoin the move and throw the try-scoring pass to Chris Feauai-Sautia. Such brilliance is rare.
For all the good stuff, it was a loss, but you have to credit the home team for being there right until the final whistle. Small mercies, perhaps, but feeding off crumbs of comfort is hardly a new dining experience for followers of this team.