Scotland 3 - 49 New Zealand: Scots optimism swept away by a black wave

ALL the terrific theatre of moody darkness, fireworks and pipers that welcomed the combatants to the Murrayfield stage, and the hope sprung from wins in Ireland and Argentina last season, was swiftly and clinically extinguished on Saturday evening by a New Zealand team that continues to set new benchmarks in international rugby.

The great question for Scottish supporters as they trudged out of the Edinburgh stadium, and for the Scotland players and coaches today, is: were Scotland inexcusably awful or New Zealand simply awe-inspiring?

As with most sporting contests, this panoply featured a heady mixture of both. Scotland players fell off tackles and lacked the pace and physicality of their opponents in the crucial first quarter that head coach Andy Robinson, and all and sundry, had insisted would hold the key to the game, and in that period the ruthless All Blacks wrapped up victory.

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Knowing that he was sending his players into their first international in five months against the world's best side with 11 Test matches under its belt in that time, Robinson had sent the Scotland squad out for the anthems in their tracksuits, so that they could continue running through attacking drills and defensive chores right up to the moment the referee called for the start of the game. England, Ireland and Wales had all been caught cold at the start of their autumn Tests the previous week, so Scotland strove to ensure they would be ready for the opening minutes of theirs.

But when the real battle began, the real collisions brought a shivering thunder to Murrayfield and the real pace of top-class Test rugby whipped the ball through All Blacks hands, inviting momentum and rarely a scent of a drop, Scotland were not ready. It is debatable whether anything could have prepared the Scots for this, an All Blacks team coming off possibly their best Tri Nations season, and games against Australia and England with which to shake off whatever rust had set in after just six weeks' off, but a greater fighting resistance was certainly expected.

Scotland did open the scoring, in fact, when Richie McCaw, the All Blacks openside flanker and skipper, gave away his customary early penalty to test how the referee was seeing things, and Dan Parks converted it from 40 metres out.

But from the moment Parks overhit a penalty touch-finder a minute later, which stayed in, the writing was on the wall for Scotland.Impressive wing Isaia Toeava burst up the right touchline and when Scotland were penalised at the ensuing ruck, Dan Carter went for touch from eminently kickable range. Scotland's defence was already being stretched but a knock-on by debutant Hika Elliot saved them. Then the Scottish scrum, which competed well throughout the game, went early at the first set-piece, handing possession back, and New Zealand duly turned it into the game's first five-pointer.

It was a sublimely easy score from the training field that introduced the deft skills of Sonny Bill Williams to a Scottish audience. The 6ft 4in former League international was at the heart of most of the tries, drawing in defenders and flicking the ball out from under his arm to destroy a defence, and was solid in the tackle, to earn the 'Man of the Match' award.

Jimmy Cowan, the scrum-half, moved quickly from the scrum inside the 22 on the left and Williams picked an incredible line back across the drift defence to leave his opposite number Graeme Morrison perplexed. Once in behind the first line of defence, Williams passed the ball under-arm 'out the back door' to Hosea Gear, and the supporting winger had an easy run-in under the crossbar.

That was after just eight minutes. Scotland had their moments with ball in hand, the front five working well to compete in the set-piece early on, the back row digging in, half-backs Mike Blair and Dan Parks striving to provide a lead and most of the team working tirelessly to contest the set-piece and the breakdown.

But New Zealand, superbly developing a faster, off-loading game, were more physical, quicker and cleverer at almost every turn, committing fewer bodies to the breakdown, yet still slowing Scotland ball with their aggression and technique, and so ensuring that everywhere a Scot went, at least two All Blacks went too.

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McCaw's class of 2010 - the skipper, with Mils Muliaina, equalling Sean Fitzpatrick's 92-cap record - were also streets ahead when it came to exploiting space and finishing.Pulling Scottish bodies into the rucks and forcing the home defence narrow, they exploded to wherever the space was, as if picked up on some New Zealand radar operating within the heads of McCaw, Cowan and Dan Carter.

The result was a scoreline that read 14-3 after 12 minutes, Carter having been released on a free run to the line by one such swift attack and quick hands; 21-3 after 18 minutes, full-back Muliaina marking a special day with his 30th Test try; and 28-3 with 25 minutes on the clock as Gear stepped in off the left wing and danced past Max Evans for a simple run-in.

There were errors in Scotland's play each time, from defensive mis-alignment to simple poor tackling, knock-ons in possession to stolen lineouts, but still, one sensed that, such was the gulf between the sides, rather than contribute hugely to the tries, they merely made the tries easier.

More than 56,000 supporters had pitched up, most hoping that Scotland might hold on long enough to score a try or two and make for an exciting game. Yet the appearance of the dreaded 'Mexican Wave' after just 35 minutes gave it away. That might have been great for family entertainment in what was as good and voluble a Murrayfield support as the players could have asked for, but it was a withering indictment on the paucity of Scottish thrills on the field.

The first 'Wave' countdown began after another promising period of Scottish pressure, the attack punching up the middle, using width and retaining ball eventually only to finish abruptly when wing Rory Lamont lost the ball. The winger did not appear after half-time and there was nothing left of Scottish hope.

Coach Robinson said afterwards that he had told the players to keep the ball in hand in the second half, not to kick, to challenge themselves to hold it against the world's best, and there were times again when their movement and off-loading was exciting to watch, debutant scrum-half Greig Laidlaw coping well with the immense step-up, but they were not accurate enough for long enough to threaten a try.

A second score by Muliaina eight minutes in led to the All Blacks emptying their bench of six players by the hour-mark to rest some for next weekend's Test in Ireland.The sight of Carter jogging to the touchline as if completing a 50-minute training run was another indictment of Scotland's inability to tax the tourists, however.

The All Blacks' tempo dropped momentarily with the changes, but a calamitous failure by Scotland to protect the ball at the base of a ruck gifted them possession for Conrad Smith to score after 66 minutes and as Murrayfield began to empty, replacement scrum-half Andy Ellis scampered in for a seventh score with two minutes remaining.

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Referee Dave Pearson actually blew over a minute early after a stretcher was brought on for Evans, but the one bit of good news for Scotland was that he and Blair, taken off in the first half with a head knock, were quickly on their feet and beginning to recover afterwards. The test for the rest of the squad now is to recover as swiftly from this embarrassment. Robinson is a realist. He knew this would be a challenge of epic proportions, and has discovered just how much of a mental one it is too when Scotland meet the black jerseys.

But the one desire he spoke of above others for this three-match autumn Test series was to win the respect of the opposition. In one game, his team lost what they might have accrued from the All Blacks, and much of the Scottish public. International rugby is a brutal place.

Scorers: Scotland - Pen: Parks. New Zealand: Tries: Gear 2, Carter, Muliaina 2, Smith, Ellis. Cons: Carter 5, Donald 2.

Scotland: H Southwell; R Lamont, M Evans, G Morrison, S Lamont; D Parks, M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford, E Murray, R Gray, J Hamilton, K Brown, J Barclay, R Vernon. Subs: A Dickinson for Murray 21-30mins, G Laidlaw for Blair 39, N Walker for R Lamont, N Hines for Hamilton, both 40, R Rennie for Brown, S Lawson for Ford, Dickinson for Murray, all 65, R Jackson for Parks 68.

New Zealand: M Muliaina; I Toeava, C Smith, SB Williams, H Gear; D Carter, J Cowan; T Woodcock, H Elliot, O Franks, B Thorn, S Whitelock, L Messam, R McCaw (capt), K Read. Subs: S Donald for Carter 52mins, J Afoa for Franks 54, A Boric for Thorn, D Braid for McCaw, both 57, A Ellis for Cowan 58, A Hore for Elliot 61