Scotland’s Rugby World Cup is up and running after this comprehensive four-try, bonus point win in sweltering conditions kept them on course for a quarter-final shoot-out with hosts Japan back in Yokohama a week on Sunday.
Gregor Townsend’s men played with positivity and purpose against awkward but limited opposition to partly atone for their shocking start to Pool A against Ireland but it wasn’t without tension as Scotland’s fans were left sweating, quite literally in the indoor Kobe Misaki Stadium, until six minutes to go when a second penalty try secured the bonus point they so desperately wanted.
An earlier penalty try in the 57th minute had them on the brink after Sean Maitland and Greig Laidlaw helped Scotland to a 20-0 half-time lead with excellent scores following a close first quarter.
Townsend certainly got the energy that was so lacking in the opening quarter against Ireland in Yokohama and it was the new boys in the team who provided the spark.
Winger Darcy Graham made a thrilling charge into the 22 and, after he was stopped, flanker Jamie Ritchie, who was excellent all night, took on the charge before being penalised.
Scotland had a slight edge but the accuracy was a bit off as both teams took time to acclimatise to the steamy and greasy conditions.
Samoa lost their captain Jack Lam to a temporary injury replacement for a ten minute spell, during which Greig Laidlaw opted for the posts to give Scotland an early lead. The try chase could wait until later.
With both sides in blue, Samoa in royal, Scotland in navy, the exchanges remained bitty and the footing tricky on the slick surface. It was Townsend who had to make a change in the 17th minute when loosehead Allan Dell took a head knock and was replaced by veteran Gordon Reid.
This was turning into very hard work already. The Scots built possession dominance but were struggling to do too much with it and the slippery ball slithered out of stand-off Finn Russell’s hands yet again to scupper a chance to build from inside his own half.
Russell and Stuart Hogg got their first chance to launch off first phase after a Samoa knock-on but the full-back was stopped short of the opposition 22 before another foray towards the Samoan line was repelled.
Scotland needed something special to break the impasse and, when that is required, Russell is the man to deliver. On 30 minutes he cut out the middle men and went route one with a sublimely judged right-to-left cross-field kick which landed straight into Maitland’s bread basket. The wing was half stopped but had the momentum to get over for that crucial breakthrough score, which Laidlaw converted.
Scotland may have been the 20th and last team to register a first try at this tournament but there wasn’t too long to wait for the second.
Suddenly, what had been treacle turned to quicksilver as the team’s main ball players began to grow in confidence.
Russell produced a fabulous feint and go then flipped the ball up to Jamie Ritchie, who fed inside to Laidlaw.
It looked like the scrum-half was going to be swamped by the covering Samoan defence but he tenaciously brushed off the first attempt to stop him then burrowed on to crash over, converting his own try.
Hogg then showcased that, for all his breathtaking fleet-footed attacking talent, he is also a consummate rugby footballer. His probing touchfinder to the Samoan corner had the islanders on the back foot and, when they tried to clear, the full-back collected from 40 metres out, steadied himself and connected beautifully to send over a showstopper of a drop goal.
It was the first time a Scot had scored Test points through that avenue since Duncan Weir’s last-minute winner against Italy in Rome over five years ago and Scotland's first drop goal in the Rugby World Cup since Dan Parks' effort against England in 2011. More importantly, it opened up a satisfying 20-0 lead.
It was all Scotland now but the Samoans survived to the break, knowing that they would be up against a side thirsting for two more tries in the second half.
The first ten minutes after the break had Scotland well in control again but again the stifling conditions and slimy ball continued to frustrate.
With the scrum already dominant, Townsend looked to turn the screw by freshening up the pack as Fraser Brown replaced Stuart McInally at hooker and Scott Cummings came on for Grant Gilchrist at lock.
Another good nudge in the set-piece got the backs moving again but Russell’s mis-pass out to Graham haring down the right inched agonising over the youngster’s grasp.
Samoa were pinned back now and struggling to clear out of their ten, never mind 22-metre line. A penalty was kicked to the corner as the Scots sought the third try that would open the door in good time to the all-important bonus.
The Samoans were mauled back over their line and French referee Pascal Gauzere went to the television match official (TMO). Brown looked confident but in the end the ruling was a penalty try, to make it 27-0, with Samoan wing Ed Fidow sent to the sin-bin for being offside when holding up the Scots’ replacement hooker.
So, the game won as surely as the Ireland one was lost when the men in green hit 27 points just over a week ago in Yokohama.
There was now 22 minutes for Scotland to secure the four-try bonus point which would put them back in the mix in what is unfolding as the most intriguing and unpredictable pool in the tournament.
Laidlaw was warmly applauded off after another sterling effort in dark blue befitting of his 75th cap when he was replaced by George Horne. At the same time centre Duncan Taylor relieved Sam Johnson, who had put in another lung-busting shift of graft in defence and attack.
Changes made, Scotland needed to rediscover their flow and momentum as the clock ticked precariously towards the last ten minutes.
But Samoan are proud warriors and the sight of a big fat zero next to their name on the scoreboard would hurt. They rallied to frustrate the Scots before the opening was finally made, Maitland unleashed on a two-on-one overlap which seemed destined for the glory score.
He appeared to have dived for the corner a fraction too soon and had clearly lost the ball before crossing the line in the left corner.
Going upstairs to the TMO seemed futile until it emerged that the covering challenge by Fidow was led by the knee and, another penalty try was awarded. To compound Samoa's misery, the wing’s second transgression saw him red-carded.
The sighs of relief around the stadium may have reduced by a fraction the greenhouse-like temperature, or perhaps added to them, but the bottom line was that Scotland’s job was done.
Late to the party, perhaps, but at least now firmly on the dancefloor.
SCORERS: Scotland: Tries: Maitland, Laidlaw, pen tries 2. Cons: Laidlaw 2; Pen: Laidlaw. Drop goal: Hogg
SCOTLAND: S Hogg; D Graham, C Harris, S Johnson, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; A Dell, S McInally, WP Nel, G Gilchrist, J Gray, M Bradbury, J Ritchie, B Thomson. Subs: F Brown for McInally 52, G Reid for Dell 13, Z Fagerson for Nel 58, S Cummings for Gilchrist 52, G Horne for Laidlaw 64. D Taylor for Johnson 64, A Hastings forr Russell 76, R Wilson for Bradbury 72.
SAMOA: T Nanai-Williams; B Tuatagaloa, A Leiua, H Taefu, E Fidow; T Pisi, M Matavao; L Mulipola, R Niuia, M Alaalatoa, T Paulo, K Le’aupepe, C Vui, TJ Ioane, J Lam. Subs: S Lam, P Alo-Emile, J Lay, P Faasalele, J Tyrell, P Cowley, U Seuteni, K Fonotia.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
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