A controversial penalty in the dying minutes allowed Australia to win the Twickenham quarter-final 35-34 and the Scots were jettisoned through the World Cup trapdoor like the rest of their European cousins.
Scotland’s sporting history is littered with heroic failure but this added a new chapter and was particularly gut-wrenching.
When Mark Bennett scored with an interception try under the posts with seven minutes remaining it appeared Cotter’s men were about to clinch a semi-final place with a famous win.
But Bernard Foley’s last-gasp penalty snatched it away for them.
The match-winning kick came in highly contentious circumstances. After a botched Scottish lineout, the ball was knocked forward and it ended up in the hands of offside Scottish forward Jon Welsh. But replays indicated a touch in between by Australia’s Nick Phipps, meaning a scrum rather than a penalty may have been sufficient.
South African referee Craig Joubert thought otherwise and left the pitch to a chorus of boos, running down the tunnel without stopping to shake hands with the players.
Laidlaw, who had called it a “bad decision” moments after the final whistle, rowed back at the post-match press conference, if only a little. “We were one kick away from being in semi-finals and arguably we should have been,” he said. “We’ve moved forward but now is not the time to assess that.”
“I asked him on several occasions,” Laidlaw said about asking Joubert to review the controversial final play. “But I don’t know what the protocols are. He took his time. By the way he was looking at the big screen, he wasn’t sure himself. He certainly made a sharp exit at the end of the game.”
The protocols of the game only give the referee rights to “go upstairs” if a try has been scored or if foul play is suspected; neither of which occurred in this situation. Whether the Kiwi TMO Ben Skeen could have whispered in Joubert’s ear is less clear but common sense suggests he should have done because replays clearly show the ball hit Phipps, so putting Welsh onside.
But for this young side to grow, and the vast majority will be around in four years’ time, they need to can the excuses culture.
They didn’t have to give the Wallabies five tries. They could have secured that vital re-start that followed Bennett’s late try. Bennett could have held onto Finn Russell’s pass in the first half when he might have scored. That last lineout call should not have been the risky option to the back. And so on and so on.
This experience will surely motivate this young squad to bigger and better things in the coming years but the point is that a better performance would have taken the referee out of the equation.
“I didn’t see him leave the pitch,” replied Vern Cotter when quizzed about the South African whistle blower who has previous in the last World Cup final when France couldn’t buy a penalty against the host nation for any money.
“I think we’ll take time to review that end of the game properly before we pass comment,” Cotter continued. “I feel for these guys. Tough, tough day. We use clichés, fine margins, but they stayed in the game, believed and fought right to the end. I’m proud of them as men and as rugby players. It’s a tough one to take.”
For the first time in the tournament’s history, the semi-finals will be an all-Southern Hemisphere affair, with the Wallabies taking on Argentina and New Zealand facing South Africa.