Allan Massie: Scotland were in 'they shall not breach our wall' mood against Samoa

Greig Laidlaw preapres to feed a scrum during the Pool A match
Greig Laidlaw preapres to feed a scrum during the Pool A match
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Satisfactory, not brilliant, but satisfying. Scotland were down on the floor after the Ireland game. Almost nobody had a good word to say for them. They picked themselves up, showed character and took this one by the scruff of the neck.

Four years ago we scored 36 points against Samoa, but they scored 33. This time we scored 34 and they scored nothing.

For years Scots have been critical of Warren Gatland’s emphasis on defence, preferring to take the line: they score five, we score six. Well, sometimes yes, this happy warrior’s approach works fine. But defence matters. Defence wins matches too. It won this one. The side notorious for leaking tries leaked nothing.

You could see from the first minutes that Scotland were in “they shall not breach our wall” mood. The tackling and counter-rucking were superb. The new back-row of Jamie Ritchie, Blade Thomson and Magnus Bradbury were outstanding, utterly committed, Ritchie as skilful at the breakdown as John Barclay in his prime. Johnny Gray was terrific, his best game for a long time, and just when we needed it.

Conditions were oppressive. You could see sweat pouring off faces after ten minutes. The roof was closed, humidity and the temperature high.

The surface was skiddy, players on both sides frequently losing their footing, while the ball was as slippery as Bill McLaren’s famous ”baggie in a Border burn”.

It escaped players’ hands like a piece of soap in a hot shower. The great thing in such conditions is to recover from scarcely avoidable handling errors. Sometimes our passing was a bit too ambitious in the circumstances, but there was always someone to clean up.

People will say this was a poor Samoan side. Perhaps it is, though it was resolute in defence. I’ll reserve judgement on them till they play Japan on Saturday. I’ll be surprised if they don’t give them a very hard game

Scotland’s first half was well-nigh perfect in the way we dominated territory and mixed our game, even if the first try was some time in coming. When it did come it was pretty good, Finn Russell’s diagonal kick accurate and beautifully weighted.

The second try was a beauty: a dummy from Finn froze the defence, then a deft back of the hand off-load to the ever-present Jamie Ritchie who made yards and timed his pass to the supporting Greig Laidlaw just right, and then Laidlaw, bouncing off two tacklers, made fifteen yards to the line.

Lovely to see Laidlaw giving the lie to those who say he contributes nothing in attack. Then Stuart Hogg’s magnificent drop-goal made for a happy half-time: 20-0 exceeded our highest hopes.

How good to see players not forgetting the drop-goal. We’re not yet in the territory of Jannie de Beer, who kicked five of them to knock England out of the 1999 World Cup, but we’ve had a vital French one from Camille Lopez, two from Wales on Sunday - Dan Biggar’s in the second minute being a perfect way to start a match - and now this beauty from Hogg.

I suppose it’s the emphasis on four-try bonus points and on territory, which you obviously lose at a restart, which have made the drop-goal unfashionable.

The second half wasn’t so good, and the fourth try was a long time in coming. We mucked up a couple of chances. There was a bit of that old Scottish failing, white-line fever, and though both penalty tries were correctly awarded, one would always prefer to see a player cross the line and touch down.

We did miss a few chances, once when an ambitious pass from Russell sailed out of reach over Darcy Graham’s head. It would have been above head-height even to Blair Kinghorn if he, and not Darcy, had been wearing the number 14 jersey.

As I’ve remarked, coaches don’t miss tackles or drop passes – they don’t score tries either, of course. Once the training and practising are done, the coach’s most important task is selection, and I think we can all agree that this time, with his ranks depleted as a result of the injuries to Hamish Watson and Ali Price, Gregor Townsend got it just right.

Chris Harris was a player many fans wouldn’t have taken to Japan, but he fully justified Gregor’s faith in him; he was admirable in both defence and attack.

As far as one can tell, there were no serious injuries. It would be no surprise if this XV was to start against Japan in a fortnight. I’m assuming that given the short turnaround between our last two pool games, some key players will miss the Russia match.

The timing of replacements’ entry was pretty good too, though I would guess Gregor might have liked to take Russell off earlier, if the bonus point try hadn’t been so long delayed.

This was a match the players had to win for their own self-esteem. Victory was necessary of course, but so too was the quality of performance.

Their spirit, commitment and discipline made the performance against Ireland even less explicable than it was at the time. But these things happen.

A month ago Ireland themselves were feeble against England at Twickenham and they weren’t very good against Japan on Saturday.

The important thing today is that Scotland haven’t fallen off the ladder. They were indeed secure on it. But there are two more rungs to climb before they can look forward to engaging with the All Blacks.

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