In the opening exchanges at a sunny Pittodrie, the early penalties went to Tonga, and they showed they were here for the result as they opted for kicks at goal despite calls from a well-chilled Aberdeen crowd for more running play, as if the visitors were here only to entertain. Calls that would perhaps come back to haunt them…
There was plenty ambitious play from the Scots, with Henry Pyrgos picking up where he left off against South Africa and keeping the game moving at pace while Laidlaw and Hogg sent probing kicks in behind the bulkier Tongans.
Their big runners like ex Glasgow man Villiami Ma-afu tried to pick out Laidlaw as a target but he was all along the defensive line, unruffled and still willing to tackle props. Neat instinctive running from the Tongan 10 and 12 and some great offloading saw them look dangerous ball in hand.
Scotland though were going low as they were supposed to do the previous week and they put the Tongans under pressure in the ensuing breakdowns, earning penalties.
After one apiece it was 3-3 and despite early promise, the game would remain locked there for quite some time.
Visser learnt his lesson from last weekend and he went looking for work, as did Lamont. Both were key figures for Scotland in the opening 20mins, as was Al Kellock who responded to earning a start with a lot of ball carrying and a commanding performance at the lineout.
Hogg also saw a lot more ball than in previous weeks and the crowd get really buzzed when he, Visser or Lamont get ball in hand. The Tongans tackled manfully though and the backs couldn’t break through.
It was understandable then that Scotland tried to get their maul rolling early on and with some success. Referee Mathieu Raynal went upstairs to the TMO as Scotland crossed, but the score was rejected.
Take two was made a mess of by the Tongans but Scotland earned another penalty, while the third attempt was held up by the defence. The Scots were determined they would have the points, went for the scrum but came away unsuccessful. Sound familiar?
While scoring tries was as usual Scotland’s problem, discipline was Tonga’s main fault, with a sin-binning from the lineout and their tighthead Aulika lucky not to go for a shoulder barge on Matt Scott shortly thereafter.
It seemed like Scotland were in control without ever really making it count on the scoreboard , Laidlaw kicking a penalty in the dying moments of the half to finally reflect the lead that Scotland deserved. Tonga almost had the last word with a scorching break from full back Lilo that luckily ended up in touch.
It was a poor first half on the scoreboard and Scotland felt like they weren’t far from clicking. Tonga as a supposed minnow would have been happy: they were still in it.
Scotland came out in the second half and attacked, as a great break from Lamont saw them inside Tonga’s 22 but again Scotland were unable to make the last pass.
Too many technical errors at set piece from both sides kept the game in stop start mode, althout murray and gray/kellock had edge at scrum and lineout respectively
With Laidlaw’s third penalty Scotland were still in the lead but would have really been thinking they should have had a try by now. Tonga would have been thinking a try of their own would put them in the driving seat.
They kept trying until Lokotui piled over following a scrum close to the Scotland line. It went to the TMO again but this time the score was awarded. The kick was good and the score was 9-10, with the visitors in the lead for first time.
On Scotland’s next possession Lamont had to be restrained from taking a quick tap but Laidlaw kicked Scotland back in the lead 12-10, and then again minutes later to make it 15-10.
Tonga were playing the scoreboard game too as they kicked a penalty in front of posts. Still playing it sensible; still far from over.
As if to prove this once and for all, another scorching break from Vainikolo set the cat well amongst the pigeons as his pace proved too much for Scotland and he dove over for a great solo try. With the try marked up on Pittodrie’s fairly useless scoreboard and dangerously little time to play, the score was 15-18.
After Tonga had their captain Nili Latu sin-binned for trying to climb on top of a maul, first cap Tom Heathcote kicked for goal but fell just short. Not his ideal start I am sure, but he looked assured running the backline in the late stages of the game.
Could Tonga overcome that Pacific instinct and play stodgy keep ball to run out the clock? As it happens they didn’t have to, as errors stayed in Scotland’s ball retention and Tonga were able to keep the pressure on.
A lazy penalty was greeted with a lazy kick from the Tongan fly half Apikotoa but it still sidled through the posts to make it 15-21.
Scotland attacked well again through the excellent Hogg and the ever-present Lamont but the Tongan defence was up to it until the inevitable penalty was coughed up by the home side.
It happened again after another period of strong Scottish pressure, but then Timani’s silly single-handed upending of Lawson after the whistle had blown almost undid all Tonga’s good work. He was sent to the bin and Scotland went looking for the 7-pointer that would get them out of jail.
From the resulting 5 metre lineout Tonga gifted more silly penalties and the Aberdeen crowd had their hackles up as they urged their team towards an unlikely victory.
With time all but up on the clock, Scotland had a scrum to get them their try, but despite repeated penalties they were unable to make it count, as was the case all through the game. With the lottery of the scrums these days, is it really a better option to keep taking them than to take a tap and go?
Almost inevitably Tonga pinched the ball from the base, broke upfield and it was all over.
Stuart Hogg in particular showed today what the jersey means to him and he was visibly shattered afterwards as the very small Tongan section of the Pittodrie crowd went into party mode with their team, leaving the Scots to pick up the pieces once again.