New Zealand’s big boys rocked by our little gems

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Huw Jones of Scotland scores Scotlands second try despite the attentions of  TJ Perenara of New Zealand. Picture: 
Neil Hanna
. Huw Jones of Scotland scores Scotlands second try despite the attentions of TJ Perenara of New Zealand. Picture: Neil Hanna
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It lasted half a second, which was probably all the time new All Blacks wing sensation Waisake Naholo needed to tie his boots, the ones with the tiny rocket-boosters on the sides.

We’re talking about the feeling of pride at New Zealand naming their strongest team for Murrayfield, and how long before it was replaced by apprehension – and how long after that came the sweat-soaked panic.

Of course there was respect from the champs beforehand. The back-to-back global kingpins spoke warmly about the stadium, the people and the “lovely wee gem” of a rugby team that Scotland were becoming. And the most respectful thing coach Steven Hansen did was select Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams and Kieran Read and the rest of these monsters of the game.

Look, there’s Barrett, a throwback to flair-packed fly-halves of old. Just as well his goalkicking can sometimes be mortal otherwise we’d be saying: “Who was Dan Carter, anyway?”

There’s Williams, the steaming hulk of the midfield, who gave his World Cup medal to a 14-year-old fan for “taking the risk” of running on the park to greet him, but tends to be much less welcoming to opposing centres daring to approach.

And there’s Kieran Read, the captain, who officially became an All Black at this ground, and who, 108 caps later, was surely going to have few problems against a man making his first start, albeit one with a racy name. Cornell Du Preez sounded like he could be a suave and mysterious ladies man from a Barbara Cartland novel or an Emmanuelle film and, tough jobs these may be, they seemed infinitely preferable to what seemed like an impossible task: doing what no other Dark Blue XV had ever done in 112 years and beat the All Blacks. And in only the fourth minute the Preez could have been his. Stuart Hogg made a scorching break and fed the No.8. But in his excitement he fumbled the ball.

There had been a rousing start to proceedings with fireworks, an attempt to unnerve the famous visitors with a cheesy lounge piano backing track for their anthem, lusty cries of “Scotland, Scotland” during the haka – and emotional cheers for Doddie Weir whose battle with motor neurone disease has touched the nation. The Scotland legend delivered the match ball, accompanied by his three strapping sons. He’d recorded a message. “History can be made,” said Doddie. The Scots took the ball and in the opening exchanges used it well, Finn Russell shooting them into the lead with a penalty.

It was an advantage that for all but two minutes of the first half they comfortably held, could have extended, should have done, but the play was bold and urgent, with Hogg irresistible and the crowd roared loudly for Naholo to be sin-binned for blocking the full-back as he flew through the air.

It would be wrong to say big reputations were crumbling but the All Blacks were in a game, all right. The pace demanded by coach Gregor Townsend meant some passes were dropped but the lovely wee gem was definitely twinkling. By New Zealand’s imperious standards, 2017 had produced the occasional moment of looseness. The home captain John Barclay, though, had insisted it was “comical” to suggest they were weaker than in previous seasons of absolute tyranny and two quick tries seemed to prove him right, the first from a hooker acting as a winger and the second from a full-back who looked to have been fast-tracked from the Under-12s.

Scotland weren’t done. Jonny Gray’s try came after the kind of sustained pressure that, after an hour’s hard grind, used to be beyond them – but it was answered by an absolute peach from Barrett. Still, Scotland weren’t done and Huw Jones romped for five more points which, with a nerveless Russell conversion, brought Scotland to the brink of Doddie’s history.

They couldn’t, could they? New Zealand’s defence had been sensational, if occasionally illegal. Rather than flamboyant ball skills it’s sometimes what makes them the best but normally the rock-like rearguard is required in those southern hemisphere slug-fests and hardly ever at a stadium where they like to cruise to victory.

These superstars needed to hear the final whistle. No-one was talking about them “whacking” Scotland by 60 points anymore, as Zinzan Brooke had done beforehand. Scotland were vibrant and brave and endlessly inventive. Just one more converted try would do it. The clock went into overtime and man-of-the-match Hogg, who’d already delivered something approaching a career-best performance, spied a gap which really wasn’t there.

The entire stadium was on its feet, the people trying to roar him home. Barrett was just able to push him into touch and no more. It was every bit as vital as the earlier try with which he had ultimately won the game.