The weather ahead of this Sydney test had threatened rain but by the time the teams took the field it was dry enough for some good rugby.
Ryan Wilson kicked off the handbags after just 42 seconds, but it took John Barclay 2 minutes to start the fierce breakdown contest that characterised the first half. The penalty was possibly at the edge of Finn Russell’s range so Greig Tonks slotted it calmly.
Unfortunately the Scots then conceded a penalty on the very next play (a restart, obviously) but Bernard Foley put it wide of the posts.
Both sides were keen to run the ball and hitting hard and fast in defence. As soon as Scotland got near the 22, the Australian intensity increased and Russell found it hard to pick holes as easily as he had done against Italy.
With the larger share of possession in the opening quarter of an hour the first try actually came from an Australian turnover, Duncan Taylor reading the Wallaby attack not quite ready to follow up a Michael Hooper turnover and intercepting to scamper under the posts.
Two offences defending lineouts on their own line threatened to test the patience of referee Wayne Barnes but when they got it in play, simple hands to Israel Folau found him in an acre of space out wide, Tonks having pushed out to mark the winger.
After the Wallabies next attack ended with the ball dead, Finn took the quick tap and set off through a sleepy Australian midfield and had a lot of space to run into. Bernard Foley checked his run with a shoulder and was rightly sent to the bin.
They couldn’t make the next attack count but were in the right area of the park and when Will Genia telegraphed a box-kick clearance, Finn Russell got a hand on it and managed to gather in goal for Scotland’s second try.
Fraser Brown almost had an interception of his own but didn’t have the legs and couldn’t get the offload away to the lively Hamish Watson.
The half ended with Australia attacking the Scottish line and Ryan Wilson sent to the bin for repeated (individual) infringements. Australia’s maul still didn’t fire but they don’t need it when Folau is able to leap a clear six feet off the ground, as he did to Greig Tonks to claim Bernard Foley’s cross field kick.
Half-time: Australia 12-17 Scotland
Still down a man, Scotland might have aimed for damage limitation to open the half but both sides were still looking to play high tempo rugby.
As the bench selection suggested, Ford and Nel were brought on quite early as almost like for like subs while Matt Scott was on early for Rory Hughes who picked up a knock around the eye area late in the first half, Taylor filling in on the wing.
As the game wore on, Michael Hooper’s influence was growing on the breakdown area, and the pace of play was increasingly dictated by the home side, John Barclay this time on the wrong side of an increasing number of calls.
Despite the disciplinary issues, Scotland’s shape in defence was pretty good but Karmichael Hunt – probably the pick of the Australian backline – was doing his best Alex Dunbar impression over the ball.
Australia, oddly, looked a lot better when they settled it down and patient phases against determined Scottish defence bore fruit eventually for Will Genia who dotted it over the line from close range to give the Wallabies the lead for the first time approaching the hour mark.
Scotland are these days not the sort of team to give that up lightly and once restored to a full XV Finn Russell – who was once again very good – sparked things with a quick combination with Lee Jones to gain ground. Once it was recycled he was at it again with a little dummy pump giving just enough extra time to get the ball through the hands, Tonks, Taylor and Jones combining before Taylor popped it inside to Hamish Watson for the try.
Finn continued to threaten, perhaps taking on a little too much work when territory would have been more sensible, but who cares about sensible if they can keep the level of execution consistent?
Australia’s very own Finn Russell, Quade Cooper, showed a little of the Wallaby magic that had been missing for most of the game, sparking his backline into life but the defence held at the first time of asking, giving away just the penalty. As they had all game, Australia spurned the kick and went for the corner but Scotland’s maul defence was stout enough that they earned the scrum, to the delight of Jonny Gray and his pack.
Scotland had tightened up the indiscipline from the first half, but Australia despite a lot of errors were still in control of the field position and a lot of the last quarter of this match was played in the Scottish half which made it a tense spectacle like so many of these games in recent years. Every time Scotland cleared it, the kicks weren’t far enough to give them any sort of breather.
A break finally came on 78 minutes when John Barclay capped off a lion-hearted captain’s performance with a breakdown turnover that Barnes had to see his way. With the clock off, both sides took a breather and prepared for a final onslaught.
Scotland unwisely played far too conservatively with the ball and almost inevitably the equally excellent Michael Hooper snaffled a penalty that threatened to break Scottish hearts. Australia came close to the Scottish line but the defence held until that whistle went again – for another breakdown penalty and the arm raised towards the Scottish line.
This time, there was no heartbreak.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)
SRBlog Man of the Match: Jonny Gray was back to his combative best but I’m going to share this one: John Barclay was a tower from first to last minute despite occasional differences with the referee. And the beating heart of Scotland when they play like this is Finn Russell, once again superb in defence and bamboozling an Australian backline into giving him space and time, which is all he needs. If he does get the call to the Lions tomorrow, he’ll be there on merit.