This game entered the final quarter with Scotland defending a six-point lead but the Australians had their tails up. Bernard Foley kicked a penalty to touch and the yellow shirts swarmed all over the Scottish try line when the giant lock Will Skelton jumped into a ruck shoulder first, with Jonny Gray’s ribs the intended target.
On the TMO’s recommendation, Skelton was carded for nine of the final ten minutes and Scotland appeared to have got out of jail, only for centre Tevita Kurindrani to run through a couple of tired tackles and score the match-winning try right beside the posts.
That dragged Australia to within one point of their hosts and with just four minutes left on the clock Foley stepped up to kick Australia into a one-point lead, just as he did in the World Cup, and the Wallabies held on to the slender advantage despite a desperate, late onslaught by the Scots. Had Greig Laidlaw’s first-half conversion of Gray’s try not rebounded off the post then the Scots might have won this one.
Despite the loss this was a performance of rare maturity from the Scots, who matched the third ranked side in the world in many respects and bettered them in several. They were patient, usually picked the right option and covered up their obvious deficiencies more effectively than the baldy man. Only after the break did the visitors flex their muscles and take control of things, aided by an 8-2 penalty count.
The Wallabies will rue several missed opportunities early on but Scotland were clinical by comparison, especially Huw Jones. The Edinburgh-born Super Rugby star had a stormer of a match on his Murrayfield debut with two tries and any number of crucial interventions in defence, including picking off what would have been a scoring pass from Will Genia.
As expected the scrums were a problem initially, with Allan Dell and Zander Fagerson under the Wallaby thumb. The Aussies won four or five turnovers here, which resulted in three second-half points, but the scrums were not the disaster they could have been and Dell did better than many had expected, especially in the loose.
The home side had to deal with the early loss of Ryan Wilson so the bulk of the heavy lifting fell to the Gray brothers, who proved more than willing. With John Hardie coming off the bench, the Scots effectively played three quarters of this match with three sevens, with Grant Gilchrist doing a shift at six in the final 20 minutes.
John Barclay was the stand out. The No 8 carried, tackled and matched his illustrious opponent David Pocock in turnovers. In one priceless cameo late in the first half the Scottish veteran jumped out the defensive line to tackle Stephen Moore and somehow managed a turnover at the same time. It was world-class play from a player who was overlooked throughout 2014.
The Scots enjoyed a dream start. Laidlaw had already kicked an early penalty when Jones scored just eight minutes into his first ever appearance at Murrayfield. Richie Gray rose to claim the lineout and Finn Russell’s delicate dink over the onrushing yellow shirts sat up nicely for Jones, who had picked the perfect angle to intercept the ball and race to the line.
The Australian response was almost immediate. From an attacking lineout, Foley employed a little wrap around with a dummy runner holding the drift and Sean Maitland stepped in with the threat in the wide channel, Reece Hodge making the final run for the try.
The visitors had more chances but couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net. A simple inside ball to the speedy Michael Hooper sliced the thin blue line and a try looked certain when Genia passed directly to Jones. A little later a Kuridrani threw a poor pass to the try scorer Hodge. It was almost an anticlimax when Foley kicked a 22nd-minute penalty to level the scores.
The roller coaster ride continued when Jones grabbed his second international try just 20-odd minutes after his first. Russell and Richie Gray made the initial dent in the Wallaby defence, the ball was spun left and Jones stepped out of not one but two Aussie tackles on his way to the line.
Scotland took a 17-10 lead into the half-time sheds but Foley soon narrowed that by three points with his second penalty of the game. Jonny Gray barrelled over from short range but Laidlaw proved profligate and Foley kicked his third penalty at the other end to narrow the gap. Australia were on the charge and Scotland eventually paid the price just four agonising minutes from full-time.