EVEN for the proudest of Scots, there must be times when you’re not exactly in a tearing hurry to be confronted by tartan-bedecked jokers with Braveheart faces and C U Jimmy bunnets who’ve just come down from their wee bit hills and glens or more likely jumped in a taxi, boring the driver with their meadow-mowing boasts.
Yesterday afternoon seemed like such a time if the Scotland rugby team were about to contrive a calamitous exit from a big tournament, just like the football team on Thursday night. Surely none of us could take that.
What, in the Rugby World Cup, would be the equivalent of an injury-time free-kick, hit more in hope than expectation, which strikes a backside, an arm, a post, then squirts right along the line to produce a score which kills all hope? You shuddered to think.
Ah, but Finn Russell was back from injury. Flairful Finn was surely about to pick holes in a bedraggled Samoan defence to fire Scotland out of the pools for the first time since 2007. Well, the Pacific Islanders didn’t look all that bedraggled when scoring their first try.
The morning papers had given Scotland some build-up – “Celtic trio take the spotlight,” went one London title’s headline, “while England shuffle off stage”. But hypes makes us uncomfortable. The Samoans had nothing to lose – another dangerous scenario. Poland had confronted our footballers with guys with lots of zeds in their name. For the rugger boys, the challenge was battling through a thicket of apostrophes. Behind a back-row featuring Maurie Fa’asavalu and Alafoti Fa’osiliva, scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i was bright and quick, his stand-off Tusi Pisi even more so.
Tommy Seymour hit back with an intercepted try virtually straight from the re-start but then Samoa pulled off the same trick. It quickly became a ludicrously open game, a contest to see who would blink – and drop the ball – first. Unfortunately that was David Denton. For the fourth match running Scotland had set their alarm-clocks too late and got off to a worringly treacly start.
Some mad fools had predicted a fairly straightforward win for Vern Cotter’s side. Now, as every Scot knows, whether you’re a true White Heather Club warrior or just like watching your country compete at top-level sport, there is no such thing. When it comes to stumbling and scudding your chin on the rostrum while wiping your hands in readiness for collecting the prize, whae’s like us?
Graham Henry, the former All Blacks coach, had warned beforehand that Samoa, while being one of the World Cup’s big disappointments thus far, could “stir themselves against the Scots” and in the group that has demonstrated “how the sands in the game may be shifting” provide one final twist. The Scotland defence was having a bit of a nightmare. Our footballers were done down by Robert Lewandowski, Poland’s phenomenally potent striker. Samoa had no superstars but their forwards could grunt and their backs could dance – none more so than Reynold Lee-Lo, scorer of their third try.
Greig Laidlaw’s penalties were just about keeping Scotland in touch and the fans in the Gallowgate End of St James’ tried to lift their team. The stands were impressively full but they were distinctly nervous. This certainly wasn’t a performance to make you feel like stripping to the waist, like so many Newcastle United fans are wont to do.
Samoa, who’d been zipping the ball with the exuberance we’d feared, could have scored more tries in the first half, and would have done but for some carelessness. Scotland yet again needed revivers in their interval tea.
They resumed with vim, set up camp in the Samoans’ half, and chose to run their penalties, but without the desired result. Laidlaw went for goal with the next couple and finally the Scots squeezed into the lead, but when two further ones were skewed wide, the big dark blue support had to stay on edge, which is of course its natural state. In Samoa there’s a culture called fa’afafine where both genders are embodied by blokes in dresses – for instance, Manu Tuilagi, the Samoa-born England centre, has a brother called Julie. If the team could be said to be suffering an identity crisis, it was that they were already out of the tournament but playing with great style. Admittedly, Scotland had managed to restrict their dashes upfield, but even with the benefit of his try, Laidlaw and his men couldn’t relax – and nor could Caledonia’s men in skirts looking on anxiously. The great Geordie citadel of St James’ must have impressed those visiting for the first time. The previous evening during New Zealand vs Tonga, the TV commentator strained for lyricism to describe it: “On the site of the old gallows … rising high ... dominates the skyline.” The Scots were battling hard to ensure their World Cup adventure did not end in Newcastle, but if they were going to prevail, then the kind of swashbuckling try they’d scored earlier in the competition seemed unlikely.
Instead, the Scotland dugout roared its approval of thumping hits from Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland. Many fists banged the plastic roof which has never offered much shelter to a succession of Magpies managers. Another try brought Samoa to within three points but when the ball was spun low, fast and carefree one final time it bounced off a head and their brave effort was over. So was the agony of supporting Scotland, but you wouldn’t have it any other way, would you?