The prodigal Finn Russell shines, they all do, but isn’t this Scotland’s most agonising defeat by the All Blacks

Gregor Townsend stood in the coaches’ box and sang, plaintively, the one about the indigenous plant and the prospects of it budding in Edinburgh any time soon.

The returning Finn Russell's kicking was faultless all day but he couldn't quite inspire a much sought-after Scotland victory.
The returning Finn Russell's kicking was faultless all day but he couldn't quite inspire a much sought-after Scotland victory.

And there facing him in the team line-up for the anthem was the flower of Scotland, the very one, our best player. When would we see his likes again? Two weeks ago there seemed a very real prospect of Finn Russell having played his last game in dark blue. But suddenly, dramatically, gobsmackingly, he was back.

It wasn’t in the script that the quixotic fly-half should be at Murrayfield this autumn. But perhaps it’s no surprise he was, given the erratic nature of that script. A South American soap opera might have rejected it for being too over-the-top. So too Tennessee Williams, master of melodrama. And so too a French farce.

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What, the Paris-based Russell is ditched on grounds of “form”? Which surprises those who’ve watched him in Racing 92’s matches? Then Townsend – no stranger when he played to the quixotic label – agrees said form has been good, for five weeks indeed, so after a munch of la tarte modeste – humble pie, come on keep up – the head coach hands Russell the 10 shirt as if it was the most blindingly obvious thing to do, which by the way it was?

Darcy Graham scored a fabulous intercept try as Scotland fought back against the All Blacks

Still, the decision made, the melodrama had only really just begun. There was the not insignificant matter of Russell’s state of mind, given he’d left his heavily-pregnant partner Emma Canning behind in France, their first baby due imminently.

And there was the not insignificant matter of the opposition on a glorious and almost balmy November afternoon. In light of the build-up, the silliness of much of it, the All Blacks might reasonably have asked of their hosts: “So are you guys up for trying to beat us for the first time in 117 years or not?”

Short-sleeved while the Scots were snugly wrapped up for the preliminaries, New Zealand did not immediately look like a team about to lose an unprecedented fifth game in a year. They may have shed some of their aura of superhero invincibility but Sam Whitelock, grizzled, greying beard and right knee shaking impatiently, had a “Come right ahead” mien about him. With Jamie Ritchie, the All Blacks’ captain greeted Doddie Weir, one colossus to another, and here was yet another reason, as the Scotland hero bravely battles MND, why the fly-half stooshie seemed just so much daft noise.

The All Blacks were ahead in just two minutes before Russell, recipient of the loudest cheer during the team announcements, had even touched the ball – and they’d doubled the advantage after eight. Even that early we feared for the Scots in colours doubtless intended to invoke the bonnie heather but had them resembling 15 Parma Violets.

Back they came though, through Stuart Hogg’s penalty try and a fabulous interception from Darcy Graham, Russell tying the contest with a conversion. He was kicking well from hand, and passing in that idiosyncratically relaxed back-garden knockabout manner, and although he put the Scots ahead with a penalty it was the electric performance of Graham which seemed to offer Scotland the best chance of a phantasmagorical victory, as Duhan van der Merwe on the other wing provided muscular back-up.

Among the Saltire-faced kids in the stand there were supporters of mature years who had perhaps seen Scotland succumb on no less than ten previous occasions to the routinely-hailed best team on the planet – and maybe they were there when we achieved our best-ever result, 1983’s 25-all draw.

But Townsend, himself beaten six times by the All Blacks home and away, must have been heartened by how his men were throwing themselves at the ball, their sainted opponents, and the daunting history of this fixture, although we couldn’t help wondering if a couple of missed opportunities would prove crucial in the end.

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Could Scotland possibly keep up this white-hot intensity? Doddie in his pomp would have been absolutely invaluable. But the forwards available, led by the ever-impressive Ritchie, backed up by Pierre Schoeman powered by roars of “Shoooo!” from the stands, were doing their darnedest to keep the All Blacks pinned back as two further Russell penalties, the pivot showing no signs of distractedness over impending fatherhood, edged them further ahead.

New Zealand tried to counter. Russell’s opposite number Beauden Barrett, one of three from the great rugby progeny on the pitch, had cross-kicked beautifully for the opening try but overhit two second-half efforts. Still, the tourists, aided by some extremely handy replacements were building a head of steam which seemed, at worst, ominous.

Some desperate Scottish defence cost us a man, Rory Sutherland being yellow-carded, and the remaining 14 couldn’t stop Scott Barrett crossing the line, Jordie’s conversion giving them back the lead after long Scottish ascendancy.

There was just one point in it. But any hopes of a dream finish – a last-minute Russell drop-goal, perhaps – were dashed by another score for New Zealand. The crowd, who hollered for their favourites throughout, were angered by the try and what they thought was the failure of Mark Telea to ground the ball properly – and moments later by a barge on the flying Graham as he chased a kick deep into the opposition half. But it was too late. All Black power and imperiousness had reasserted themselves and Scotland were left to rue maybe their most agonising missed opportunity in all those 117 years.

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