The Tongan team sheets distributed before the match list not only their professional clubs but their home village, suggesting something of the distance they have travelled to represent their country, a job they take fierce pride in.
A look through the birthplaces of the Scotland team reveals a more eclectic mix of origins, from Upper Hutt, Wellington, to Zeewolde, Holland alongside the more usual suspects like Cambusland. But what is clear is the growing influence of the West of Scotland in this Scotland team, so it was natural the semi-regular outreach scheme for the third, perhaps “lesser” autumn international drifted out that way, this year towards the fittingly named Rugby Park in Kilmarnock.
Scotland began in confident mood with initial penalties spurned for lineouts but the Tongans were up to the task defensively. With ball in hand they showed bustling inventiveness, the dry conditions and artificial pitch allowing both sides to keep the tempo up.
Latiume Fosita kicked the first points of the game, before Scotland took another lineout penalty. The first attempt drew another penalty – rejected – before Nili Latu was binned for coming in at the side of a maul, and a second penalty – also rejected – failed to earn the pushover try the pack were clearly aiming for. In the last Tonga match Scotland spurned something like 17 penalties, and we all know how that ended.
Luckily Blair Cowan and the pack drove over eventually, and referee JP Doyle could blow his whistle for the try; perhaps relieved he didn’t have to send any more Tongans for a rest.
While Scotland were edging the set piece, in the loose the pace dictated Doyle’s refereeing style, and any attempts to delay ball by either side were swiftly punished, allowing Fosita to earn Tonga 6 points and the lead, even with a man in the bin.
No sooner had Lutui returned to the field than Doyle had a role to play again when Alex Dunbar was sinbinned for what could have been a dangerous tackle. The TMO was unable to shed any light on it for the crowd at any rate, and Doyle didn’t look like he had much to go on save his Assistant Referee’s recommendation.
Still, it gave the Tongans heart and Fosita kicked another penalty when given the opportunity to increase the visitors lead. Scotland weren’t playing particularly badly but they were on the wrong side of the whistle and the scoreboard.
There were signs of enterprise from Visser and Laidlaw when they managed to get near the 22, and Russell almost had a try from a charge down that Doyle whistled back. The crowd were keen to see their team run it: but the “oohs” and “aahs” often ended in “hmm”s.
Scotland have made hay from interceptions all Autumn, and just when Tonga looked like they had the Scots on the ropes, Tommy Seymour forced panic amongst the Tongan attackers by rushing up to try and grab another of his interceptions. He didn’t manage it but Stuart Hogg snaffled the ball off his own knees and sprinted from his own 22 to dot down under the posts.
Scotland could have had another just before half time but Laidlaw just failed to hang on to a ball flung from the top of the lineout when he was clean through the gap. Hands in his head, he showed the frustration perhaps felt throughout the team and the stadium at a misfiring first half.
Half time: Scotland 14-12 Tonga
The second half started off with more silly penalties before Finn Russell, having seen the pack fail to make much headroom initially, switched play back to the blindside, offering Alex Dunbar a one on one with a Tongan forward which he made good work of to get the try in the corner.
They were at times guilty of over-enthusiasm to try and put the Tongans away – who were arguably there for the taking – but often that turned things scrappy, and Russell in particular was guilty of this. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t; the Scots were also going too wide too quickly.
Resurgent though, was Alex Dunbar, stung into life by his sin-binning. He’s been quiet all Autumn but suddenly he was everywhere, taking his try very well and almost had another, along with an inventive grubber kick that turned the Tongan defence.
Both Gray brothers also continued their form, as did Rob Harley and Blair Cowan, and Johnnie Beattie played in a similar vein to Adam Ashe had which you suspect is exactly what Vern Cotter would have wanted.
Geoff Cross gave away fewer penalties than last week, and capped a strong second half for the Scotland pack with a try referred to the TMO that was given to the delight of the Kilmarnock crowd.
Scotland’s confidence in their set-piece over Tonga was illustrated by the choice of a penalty at a scrum near the Tongan line with ten minutes to play. It was not a particularly exciting way to spend the last few minutes of the game, especially as they made a muddle of it and Doyle certainly wasn’t marching under the posts as they obviously fancied.
In the end Scotland resorted to a cross-field kick that bounced off Duncan Taylor’s hand into the arms of Tommy Seymour who dotted down for the simplest of tries.
Scotland continued to try things in the backs till the final whistle, but the game had been won through the increasingly settled and confident pack: who look more likely than they have in years to put fire back into the belly of Scottish rugby.
SRBlog Man of the Match: if not for the yellow card, Alex Dunbar all but played his way into contention and Laidlaw capped off an excellent series with a captain’s performance, but as usual the pack were excellent and Blair Cowan was at the heart of it all. His back-row combination with the aggressive Rob Harley is starting to gel nicely.
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU)
Attendance: 16,023 (est)
Tries: Cowan, Hogg, Dunbar, Cross, Seymour
Con: Laidlaw (3)
Pen: Laidlaw (2)
Pen: Fosita (4)