Vern Cotter reflected on what he considered the most “complete” performance of his time in charge of Scotland but his frustration at witnessing another one that got away was evident.
Tevita Kuridrani’s 76th-minute try snatched Australia’s second successive one-point smash and grab over the Scots following last year’s Twickenham epic but, although not as momentous as missing out on a World Cup semi-final, there was an element of this loss that niggles more. The reason is that Scotland played much much better here than they did last October, outscoring the Aussies 3-2 on the trycount and exerting far more control over the game.
And yet the outcome was the same. So near and yet so far. How heartily sick we Scots are of this story.
However, it’s not for wont of trying on the part of Cotter and the players as was evidenced by yet another sign that tangible progress is being made.
Scotland’s last outing at BT Murrayfield was the rousing Six Nations win over France but the Kiwi coach felt that, even in defeat, this was another step forward.
“I’m very proud of the effort,” said Cotter after the game. “I think it was a more complete performance. I thought we kept our shape. What we didn’t want to do is lose our shape like we did against England in the first Six Nations game this year.
“A couple of times we lost it but managed to quickly get it back. It was a good whole display.
“What you like about it is the boys were just doing things for each other. You can make changes but it doesn’t matter because the team still has its focus on where it wants to go.” When the deflation of the defeat began to lift there were indeed many positives to take from this compelling and high-quality Test match. Huw Jones had a dream first appearance in front of a home crowd in the city of his birth with two brilliantly taken tries which suggest that Scotland have unearthed a real diamond from the Western Cape. Few would argue with his man-of-the-match award, although it must be said that Finn Russell was quite magnificent at stand-off.
Scotland knew that they couldn’t afford to concede five tries to the Wallabies as they had in the World Cup and expect to have a chance in the game.
With the Australian stand-off Bernard Foley as unerring from the boot as he was initially wayward last year, that was rammed home further.
The rearguard display was excellent but sadly the one real blot, when Peter Horne was caught cold after just coming off the bench to replace defensive rock Alex Dunbar and let Kuridrani through, proved to be a fatal one.
There wasn’t much that could be done about centre Reece Hodge’s searing effort for the tourists in response to Jones’ opener.
When Jonny Gray crashed over in the second half, belief started to surge around the national stadium that a famous victory could be claimed.
Skipper Greig Laidlaw’s conversion attempt for that score unluckily struck the post and that proved crucial in the final tally.
Scotland couldn’t build on Gray’s effort and the Wallabies began to steadily wrest control. Even with Will Skelton in the sin bin for a crazy shoulder charge on Jonny Gray after the tourists had won a penalty on the home line, the last ten minutes were all Australia and when Kuridrani squirmed over at the posts, Foley’s routine conversion was enough.
It was the spirit as much as the skill that filled Cotter with pain-tinged pride.
“I think we turned over two or three balls 30 metres from our line. The defensive integrity was great,” said the coach,
“And if you look at their shape I think they were running out of it at times. These games are won and lost on tiny margins.
“It’s the first game of a season of eight games. We knew we’d get some information from the first one that would help us move on to the next to improve us. Which is a philosophy we have used from the start. Nothing changes, we’re using these three games to get better in the Six Nations.
“There is some frustration in the group that will develop into some positive energy.
“You’re playing good teams, Australia are a good side. They were never going to go away. They were always going to come back.
“There were some things I thought didn’t go our way and some things we didn’t quite do right. We’ll focus on the things we can manage.
“But I think, if you look objectively, there has been improvement. If we keep our set plays producing ball, get over the advantage line and vary our attacks allied to defensive aggression then I think there are some positive signs.”