Knockout rugby. At international level it only rolls around once every four years. The Six Nations, summer tours, occasionally throw up winner takes all fixtures but the World Cup is the only chance we get to see it happen against teams from both Northern and Southern hemispheres.
Scotland have actually made a World Cup semi-final before now, but there was no great expectation that our boys would actually turn over a Wallabies side that many viewed as pre-tournament favourites. A quarter-final exit would be about right, on par with our ever-fluid World ranking that swithers somewhere between 7 and 11.
The one thing that Vern Cotter has tried to instill in this Scotland team is belief: faith in their own skills. So no one really told them that was the plan, that the Wallabies would be too good in too many areas.
Scotland went out to win it.
It didn’t start well of course, but gone was the sluggish first 40, replaced by just a sluggish ten minutes or so where Australia went through the gears confidently.
When Tommy Seymour rushed out of the line early and missed the tackle he had to make on Kuridrani, Adam Ashley-Cooper’s try became a formality. Bernard Foley missed the first of several kicks that would keep the scoring margin from growing too wide.
The Scots replied with some furious ball carrying, finally seeing Denton and the Gray brothers looking like the test-match animals we hoped they were and earning a Laidlaw penalty as a reward.
The Scots kept pressing the Australian line, and Peter Horne who was in the side for his eye for a gap, found one in between the defenders either side of the ruck and collected the ball and strolled through for possibly the softest try this Wallaby side have conceded all year. A sizeable Scottish support (native or otherwise) roared their team on and a further penalty swung the momentum to make it 5-13.
The Scots scramble defence was as effective as ever but there was an inevitability to Australia’s attacks as each phase drew in more and more defenders till there was an easy overlap. When they did score again though, Foley missed the conversion while Laidlaw was slotting his nervelessly to keep the scorelines tight.
Our maul defence has been an issue all year and Australia exploited that to the maximum with a repeated penalty/lineout/maul combo that led to Craig Joubert whistled up for Australia’s third try – but again it went unconverted.
HT: Australia 15-16 Scotland
With a good first half finally under their belts, Scotland had the worst possible start to the second as Joubert binned Sean Maitland for a deliberate knock-on – to me it looked like he had tried to flick it up. All over Twickenham, hearts sank as the spectre of that decision effectively ending Scotland’s challenge – as it has so many times before – rose over the cabbage patch.
Australia immediately capitalised with a try that Foley finally converted, Mitchell scoring out on the wing where Maitland should have been.
Our other bugbear this year has been the restart and no sooner had Laidlaw kicked another penalty than the Scots bungled the kick and handed the Australians what looked like an easy try until the TMO spotted a knock-on in the build up.
With the lead out to 25-19 the Scots remained good with the ball in hand but had too little effective possession to eke out further penalties. The scrum was a huge weapon with WP Nel at the helm but it was back to brilliant opportunism for their next points as Russell charged down Foley’s clearance before Genia hauled him down and he popped the ball off the floor to Seymour who dove over surrounded by defenders to send Twickenham crazy.
Laidlaw missed his conversion but even behind on the scoreboard, it put a spring in the Scot’s step, intensity in defence in particular.
Kuridrani battered over for the almost inevitable try the next time Australia attacked the Scottish line, but Scotland refused to die and kept trying to find holes with their big runners. It was heavy traffic for Strauss and Denton but they earned a penalty to bring the margin back within a score.
And then it started raining.
Replacement loosehead James Slipper had been having a tough time in the scrum but that’s nothing compared to the trouble he’ll be in after Mark Bennett picked off an indecisive pass to scamper under the posts and equalise the scores. Amidst a tumult of noise in the stadium, Laidlaw converted to give the lead back to Scotland for the remaining five minutes.
Ultimately, when history was within their grasp, there was the slightest falter from Scotland and a fumbled lineout led to an Australian penalty as Jon Welsh was ruled to have gathered the ball from an offside position.
We could talk about that decision, or the refusal to take a look at the late hit on Hogg just before – perhaps a reputation of going to ground easily is not helpful in this regard – but there were equal such moments for Australia. In the end, Scotland had possession and the lead in the last five minutes but by the 80th they had neither.
Foley found his kicking boots and slotted the penalty that gave Australia a one point win, breaking Scottish hearts in the process.
SRBlog Man of the Match: again, much is made of his service or slight stature talking to referees, but without Laidlaw’s nerveless boot we wouldn’t have been in it for the full 80, or been able to claw back points every time Australia scored. Our captain has done us proud this World Cup.
UPDATE: You can read additional thoughts on the game over on Rugby World Magazine’s site.