It was a start full of spectacle at Murrayfield tonight with a glowing light show, dancing, smoke and fireworks followed by the touching sight of Joe Ansbro presenting the match ball. Greeted warmly by the crowd, he came off flexing his hands, perhaps missing the feel of the sticky ball.
Also touching was Jim Hamilton celebrating his 50th cap and he led the team out. His young son joined him for the anthems and perhaps he was a bit too fired up by it all as he gifted an early penalty to the visitors with over-exuberance at the ruck.
Luckily Australia – or referee Jaco Peyper – were equally generous at the ruck and Laidlaw equalised soon after with a kick of his own.
With Laidlaw place kicking, Weir demonstrated soon after what he brought to the party with an excellent touch finder followed by some nice link play with Hamilton close to the ruck that took Scotland almost to the Australian try line. A penalty was awarded before we could see what might occur, and the Scots took the lead.
Scotland looked much sharper than last week but where before they found a South African brick wall, now they found just the wily coyote that is Michael Hooper whose efforts hampered them just as effectively.
Quade Cooper was penalised for a late barge on his cousin Sean Maitland which was more rumbustiousness than anything else, but it gave Weir a chance to try a kick out of Laidlaw’s range. He missed, but it was a settled start from the young fly-half. Maitland too looked much more at home this week despite the Australians’ probing kicks, but the Scots ball-carriers were getting a tough time at the breakdown.
Ross Ford went off early with knock, throwing Macarthur in at the deep end possibly earlier than he would have expected (Johnson had planned to bring him on at half time).
Christian Lealiifano kicking for goal was taking his sweet time as he often does, but both kickers were keeping the scores from getting too far apart; fitting with no one side that had yet ignited after 20 minutes and most of the play occurring in the middle two quarters. As a test match it was a bit scrappy, but it was building nicely.
Israel Folau took the first try of the match when he came into the line and found himself opposite Ryan Grant who was powerless to get a finger on him, let alone a tackle. For a game Scotland had been playing well in, it was worryingly soft to concede.
Scotland came straight back at Australia and Laidlaw slotted his third penalty to make it 9-13, but by then both sides had been warned at the breakdown and a card was threatening to overshadow a decent contest.
Laidlaw too was looking a lot sharper, and he took a quick tap penalty probably knowing that he would be tackled high by an offside player to move the penalty, and so it was. He kicked that too, to bring the margin back to a single point closing in on half time.
The Murrayfield roar returned moments later as Johnnie Beattie – playing out of position at 6 – broke into open space then put Maitland free with a man and a half to beat. Sadly his pass to Sean Lamont was not quite zippy enough to put the winger in at the corner and the Australians frantically scrambled to prevent the score.
Boos rang out moments later as it looked like an Australian knock on had fooled Peyper into chalking off a Nick De Luca try, and Australia were adjudged to have had the better of the scrum that ended the half.
Half time: Scotland 12-13 Australia
Australia were stung into life by that scoreline and came back out intent on throwing it about and bringing danger-man Folau into the game more. The impact was near immediate as he set Chris Feauai-Sautia free down the right wing and although it was referred upstairs to the TMO there was little doubting the try.
The conversion was missed and soon after Scotland again found themselves in the Australian half, but the old half-back through the middle of the line-out move (that made Henry Pyrgos’s name) didn’t quite come off, with a knock on.
Australia undid their good work soon after with Rob Simmons yellow-carded for a punch on Moray Low who had done considerable good work throughout the match. Laidlaw kicked the penalty to inch the score back and give Scotland a fillip during their period of advantage.
But it was Australia that scored next and with the referee watching for the indiscretions that had caused Simmons to lash out, they had to be careful not to suffer a card of their own.
Maitland again nearly sparked something but the ball was knocked on (possibly squeezed out by an Aussie hand on the ground) and the possession again lost forward.
It was better, but still familiarly frustrating.
Maitland also looked like he had tweaked something in his leg but that didn’t stop him supporting every running move Weir made. The young fly-half was at the centre of everything good Scotland did, but the scoreboard still favoured Australia enough for them to feel fairly comfortable.
Laidlaw missed his first kick of the game on 58 minutes and the impressive Stephen Moore won one up the other end; he and Hooper illustrated starkly the need for a proper hooker and a proper openside. The kick was missed but Australia had grown fond of Scotland’s half and were looking increasingly relaxed about the result.
Luckily Lealiifano had a wobbly spell with the boot and the scoreline remained at 15-21. Taylor took a knock after a solid game at 12 that left him woozy. With Seymour and Maitland also looking uneasy fitness-wise, Scotland needed more than the one Max Evans to prop up the back division going into the last ten minutes, down by 6.
Jonny Gray and Chris Cusiter brought some impetus to Scotland and the service was sharper, allowing Weir to grow in influence in the closing stages. His opposite number Cooper had been quiet but Genia was everywhere as usual and his crisp service allowed Australia to look good with the little amount of ball they were finding.
Australia were content to kick it to Maitland who was unlikely to run very far, he found Lamont who with little option ran into his own man. The resulting penalty could have taken the scoreline out of reach, but Lealiifano missed again to keep the vocal Murrayfield crowd on the edge of their seats.
Scotland worked their way into the Australian half again; the golden line of defence was solid but the crowd exhorted their team on – a heartening return for the Murrayfield roar often absent in November.
Australia retained possession when Scotland wanted it most and kicked their way back to the middle of the park, giving Scotland one last spell of possession to try and snatch the match.
When they needed to be clinical more than ever, Australian pressure at the breakdown (aka Hooper) was the difference between the teams and Peyper intervened once again with the breakdown penalty that let Australia off the hook for the win.
Speaking after the game, captain Kelly Brown was rueful: “I felt we had the chances out there. But any chance that they got they took.”
“It’s a game I feel we had the chances to win.”
Coach Scott Johnson was in similar mood: “We had chances but just didn’t take them. It’s more naivety in certain parts of the game. [With young players] you expect that.”
One example he offered was the lineout, where “we let ourselves down with a call or a jump that puts us under pressure.”
Overall he was upbeat about this Autumn International series.
“We’re missing a bit of our strike power. This was about expansion of the squad. As we sit now we had a look at some players and that adds to a bit of competition.”
“It was about the character today. Character is a big thing.”
On his vision for the team, he had this to say:
“I don’t want Scotland to be an easy team to get into. The players are bitterly disappointed, and I want them to be.”
“I want them to give their all.”
Referee: Jaco Peyper
SRBlog Man of the Match: Duncan Weir was at the heart of Scotland’s game and although the result didn’t go his way, after a few opening nerves he controlled the territory and brought his backs into the game well. Speaking afterwards Scott Johnson said of Weir “he’s got a skillset that’s made for test rugby.”
If we didn’t go for a homer, Hooper or Folau were worthy candidates.