SCOTLAND sit proudly atop of World Cup Pool B having now earned maximum points after scoring five tries for the second game in succession, yesterday’s haul coming against the American Eagles in Leeds. All those scores came in a commanding second-half performance after the Scots struggled to gain any sort of traction in a testing opening period.
The Scots were trailing by 13-6 going into the break and looking thoroughly out of sorts but three tries in the opening 13 minutes of the second half put this one to bed and they were never seriously threatened thereafter, running out five-tries-to-one winners.
While the coach, Vern Cotter, will be delighted with the result he must have been shaking his head at his players’ first-half performance, which was lacklustre and lacking pretty much everything else into the bargain, including any semblance of accuracy in the backs or urgency up front.
The Scottish forwards were sluggish and lost the battle of the breakdown, while the backs forced the game and paid the price. Their first-half problems were encapsulated in one brief action. When awarded a scrum, the Scots attempted and failed to drive the Eagles backwards. When they moved the ball stand-off Finn Russell was collared miles behind the gain line and the Eagles drove it backwards. The Scots were eventually awarded the scrum but not before they had retreated 30 metres in one play.
It is a good job the Eagles lineout didn’t fire all afternoon or they might have been even further behind. The set scrum was shaky enough because the Scots conceded one turnover and two free kicks, persuading Cotter to replace both props at half-time. Fraser Brown came on at flanker shortly after and Greig Laidlaw brought his boundless experience as Scotland went in search of the bonus point.
Those who were worried about the lack of depth in this squad saw nothing yesterday to assuage those fears and Scotland’s progress looks to be inextricably linked with who they can keep on the field and what sort of physical shape they are in.
The Scots were rattled and not just psychologically. Takudzwe Ngwenya has the reputation of being the fastest thing in world rugby but he tackles pretty hard too, just ask Peter Horne who had his fillings loosened by the winger just before the break.
The men in blue had their chances in that misfiring first half but some uncharacteristic fumbling fingers let them down. Hogg and Russell both missed eminently kickable penalties, one each in the first half. More seriously, the Scots butchered a couple of open goals, most notably when Stuart Hogg bravely claimed a high ball, danced his way through the disorganised defence and took off for the Eagles line with Tim Visser in support and one man to beat. But the final pass was wayward and the chance was lost.
It wasn’t the only opportunity to go begging. On the right flank, Sean Maitland found himself marked by front row forwards on at least two occasions and possibly should have made more of the miss-match. Russell was also guilty of squandering a simple pass to Mark Bennett. The outbreak of nerves, if that is what it was, appeared to be infectious because just about everyone was guilty of snatching at the ball.
The kickers swapped penalties before the USA claimed the first try from their first decent lineout of the match on the Scotland 22. The Scots’ midfield defence seemed stretched from the get go, with every American carry making huge inroads until prop Titi Lamositele wriggled over from prop range.
The Eagles might have ended the first half with another touchdown but they guddled the ball with the line begging and instead they had to make do with MacGinty’s second penalty which gave them a 13-6 lead at the break and gave Scotland plenty of problems to ponder in the dressing room.
The warming cup of roast Cotter at half-time seemed to do the trick because, 13 minutes later, the Scots had turned a seven-point deficit into an 18-point lead with three quickfire tries from the wingers and WP Nel.
The first Scottish try arrived less than two minutes after the restart and the Eagles’ only response was MacGinty’s third penalty.
A neat offload by Tim Swinson and some off-the-ball blocking by Richie Gray that escaped the officials’ notice, bought an overlap on the left flank and Visser did what he does best. Just minutes later, the rejuvenated Scots were on the attack again. Russell picked a looping outside arc before popping inside to Sean Maitland for a simple score. WP Nel then borrowed over, again from prop range, and the Scots still had 27 minutes to go in search of that fourth, bonus-point try.
It came on 65 minutes courtesy of Matt Scott after the replacement centre showed some fancy footwork after all the huff and puff from the forwards failed to break down the front door. Duncan Weir finished off the scoring with Scotland’s fifth try in the final minute.
The Jekyll and Hyde nature of his team’s performance only underlines the selection dilemma facing the Scotland coach ahead of next Saturday’s match, with several key players already racking up far more miles than anyone envisaged at this early stage of proceedings.
Scorers: Scotland – Tries: Visser, Maitland, Nel, Scott, Weir. Cons: Russell, Laidlaw 3. Pens: Hogg, Russell. USA – Try: Lamositele. Con: MacGinty. Pens: MacGinty (3).
Scotland: Hogg; Maitland, Bennett, Horne, Visser; Russell, Pyrgos; Grant, Ford, Welsh, R Gray, Gilchrist, Strokosch, Wilson, Strauss. Substitutes: Scott for Horne (55), Weir for Russell (60), Laidlaw for Pyrgos (53), Dickinson for Grant (41), Bryce for Ford (78), Nel for Welsh (41), Swinson for Gilchrist (17), Brown for Wilson (46).
USA: Wyles; Ngwenya, Kelly, Palamo, Scully; MacGinty, Petri; Fry, Thiel, Lamositele, Smith, Peterson, McFarland, Durutalo, Manoa. Substitutes: Niua for Scully (59), S. Suniula for Petri (50), Kilifi for Fry (67), Fenoglio for Thiel (64), Baumann for Lamositele (69), Barrett for Peterson (50), Quill for Durutalo (59).