HISTORY was made in Aberdeen on Saturday but it was of the kind that left Scottish rugby cold and head coach Andy Robinson angrily snapping the last straw in his tenure as Scotland head coach.
In what ranks as Scotland’s worst defeat in memory, Tonga’s first win against Home Nations opposition ensured that the national side finished a calendar year without a home victory for the first time in 14 years. Tonga had come into this final match of their northern hemisphere tour with a narrow 28-23 defeat by Italy and 22-13 win against the USA in Wales behind them and were hopeful, rather than confident, of success at Pittodrie.
They had lost both previous Test matches against the Scots in 1995 and 2001 but, over the course of 80 minutes, the gap between a Pacific Islands team now boasting more professional players than ever and a Scotland side currently walking in quicksand was closed not by anything particularly impressive but rather a clever Tongan second-half display.
Scotland dominated possession and territory in the first half but wielded a particularly blunt instrument in attack, completing a shift towards a more forward-dominated approach, which was as resolutely defended as it had been the previous week by South Africa.
The pack were hard-working and physical and won far more ball than they lost in the scrum and lineout. With lock Al Kellock imperious and prop Kyle Traynor standing up well in his first Test start, they finished with 17 lineout wins and eight scrum balls.
Scotland, however, lacked the combination of skill and accuracy in the area where it mattered most – the battle for the ball on the ground. It is well named as the “breakdown” as almost every Scottish attack broke down when the Tongans began scrapping for possession in the tackle.
Even when Scotland retained possession, the backs found themselves facing a solid line of red shirts. Throw in poor decisions, a strange reluctance to off-load and faltering handling and it was crystal clear why Scotland lacked a finish.
Winger Sean Lamont almost completed a rare attack worthy of mention midway through the first half, getting to within four metres of the visitors’ line. Although Tonga’s defence held, there ensued a ten-minute period of pressure in the visitors’ 22, with a series of penalties awarded and Scottish lineouts setting platforms for mauls. With the capacity crowd screaming “heave”, Scotland could still not get the ball down over the line.
One maul over the line went to the television match official for a decision but, with no ball visible, he had to say “no try” and at least one more Scottish drive got over but was held up.
Criticism of Scotland’s failure to go for goal came afterwards but, in truth, they had the Tongan pack on the back foot and a try, or penalty try, should have been the outcome. That they could not get the ball down beggared belief but said much for the workrate and application of the Tongan players.
It was not always legal but debutant Test referee Mathieu Raynal took his time before showing a yellow card, lock Lua Lokotui the offender. Scotland lost the ball in the subsequent lineout drive as they pushed for the line.
Full-back Stuart Hogg revealed his terrific sidestep to launch a counter-attack and, from another penalty and kick to touch, hooker Scott Lawson’s throw was deemed squint. He made amends by helping the pack regain possession in a Tongan scrum and stand-off Greig Laidlaw finally went for goal to put Scotland 6-3 up.
There was still time for a little scare when Tongan wing Fetu’u Vainikolo got outside Lamont and broke down the left touchline but his chip ahead was collected by Henry Pyrgos and carried into touch to end the half.
Scotland clearly came out having had something of a rocket, and launched into the Tongans with greater intensity. That brought the reward of a third Laidlaw penalty.
But the Tongans responded with a greater intent of their own. Their half-time talk may have been along the lines of: “Scotland have had the ball the whole half and only lead us by three points. We get the ball and we will win this game.”
And so it proved, their forwards grasping more ball and the backs showing better game management and slightly more penetration that their hosts.
Stand-off Fangatapu Apikotoa fell short with a penalty before lock Lua Lokotui drove over the line, Apikotoa converting to turn improved territory and possession into a 10-9 lead. The Tongans were also culpable for spurning chances – they were not a slick outfit and coach Mana Otai was critical of their display afterwards.
For Scotland, Laidlaw kicked two more penalties to put their advantage at 15-10 with 18 minutes left.
But, the Tongans had a sniff of victory and after Apikotoa had slotted another penalty, No8 Viliami Ma’afu showed good strength and handling to beat Hogg to a high ball. Wing Fetu’u Vainikolo’s evasive running allowed him to elude several Scottish defenders, springing him from his own half to a try at the other end. Ridiculously simple, it exposed the lethargy in the Scotland team.
Robinson then brought on former England under-20 cap Tom Heathcote at stand-off for the last ten minutes but he could not salvage the game despite Tonga losing two men to the sin-bin.
First skipper Nili Latu was yellow-carded for leaping onto the top of a maul but Heathcote fell short with the penalty attempt.
After Apikotoa converted a penalty at the other end, Leicester’s Sitiveni Mafi was sin-binned for dangerously upending Rory Lawson after the whistle had sounded. With only two minutes left, Scotland went for the corner and tried to scrum the short-handed Tongans over their line – more than once. It ended just as their first half pressure had, with lost ball and the bizarre sight of a Tongan counter-attack when a kick to touch would have clinched victory.
Even when a behind-the-back pass gave the ball back to Scotland, the Tongans had little to worry about.
At the next set-piece, Heathcote knocked on and the final whistle put the players and supporters out of their misery, and effectively handed Robinson a sword to fall on.
Scorers: Scotland: Pens – Laidlaw 5. Tonga: Tries - Lokotui, Vainikolo; Pen – Apikotoa 3; Cons – Apikotoa.
Scotland: S Hogg; S Lamont, M Evans, M Scott, T Visser; G Laidlaw, H Pyrgos; K Traynor, S Lawson, E Murray, R Gray, A Kellock, A Strokosch, K Brown (capt), D Denton. Subs: G Cross for Murray, D Hall for Lawson, both 49mins, J Barclay for Denton, R lawson for Pyrgos, both 53, N De Luca for Evans 61, T Heathcote for Laidlaw 70.
Tonga: V Lilo; F Vainikolo, S Hufanga, S Piukala, W Helu; F ‘Apikotoa, T Moa; A Taumalolo. Viliami Ma’afu, Nili Latu (c), Hale T Pole, Tukulua Lokotui, Tu’ineau, H ‘Aulika, E Taione, Subs: T Mailau for Aulika 45mins, S Mafi for T-Pole 49, A Fatafehi for Hufanga 71, K Sakalia for Taione 73, V Iongi for Helu 77, S Timani for Tuineau 78.