The risk with a pre-match extravaganza is always a little “sound and fury signifying nothing” if the on-field entertainment fails to live up to it.
With the top side in the world the visitors to BT Murrayfield, there might have been more than a few nervous heads in the stands at the light, sound and explosions in the moments before the team took the field. In one sense it was possibly an attempt to dilute the effect of the haka that followed; see also the karaoke version of God Defend New Zealand with no vocals which sounded very empty in comparison to a very loud flower of Scotland.
A touching tribute to Doddie Weir who delivered the match ball possibly had a similarly positive effect, with a first 40 minutes full of drama and excellent play from Scotland.
The opening phases were played at a furious pace, Waisake Naholo swiping Lee Jones off the ball to give Scotland a first foray into the 22, but the All Blacks maul defence was capable of handling the threat.
Scotland playing quickly at the lineout as they had last weekend and probing the All Blacks but everything was well-marshalled. Even having a slow day New Zealand are nothing if not sensible.
Scotland though, were in full swashbuckling mode with Hogg in at first receiver and finding holes in the defence and plenty of ball to play with. You wouldn’t have picked Lee Jones to get on top of Naholo but the first two pens came on that wing and the Selkirk man was the standout of the two. Russell slotted the second on 7 minutes, and the players were exhorting the crowd for more when Finn almost had an interception. They knew what it would take to stay competitive and the energy of the crowd was going to be key.
Russell and Hogg were superb in the opening half but everyone was playing with high energy and commitment. Russell missed a longer range pen on 13mins despite it having the legs.
The less charitable amongst you might have been thinking we haven’t really seen the All Blackss with the ball yet…
After 20 minutes the penalty count was 4-1 in Scotland’s favour but they showed their confidence by taking the lineout to the corner. Punishing pick and goes from the pack that were so absent last weekend almost saw them over the try line before they switched the direction of play and Huw Jones knocked it on.
The kicking from hand by Price and Russell was super. they had the momentum but the score was still just 3-0.
When offered a choice between a kickable penalty and once closer to the line, Kieran Read too went for the lineout. The Scottish defence was less assured than New Zealand’s had been, but it held too.
Hamish Watson only lasted 26 minutes before Luke Hamilton got his first cap and he looked right at home. Seconds later, Hogg was hit in the air by Naholo who should perhaps have been shown a card but the TMO felt it was mitigated by Ali Price being in the way of the Kiwi player. He still took him out in the air.
A fired-up Scotland charged on at the following lineout, Stuart Hogg and Lee Jones finding holes as they had all half but once again the All Black defence held out.
Seymour had not been having the greatest afternoon and a blunder when he accidentally kneed a kicked ball going dead then dotted it down for the scrum. It turned out quite rightly to be a 5 metre scrum to New Zealand.
The scrums had been reasonably even but it had looked like they were gradually working out Marfo and Fagerson. The Scottish pack pulled off a determined shunt though and Price snaffled the ball to break out. New Zealand managed to earn a penalty and grudgingly kicked it to even things up. Low scoring, but utterly gripping.
At 3-3 and 40 minutes gone, Scotland bravely opted to play on but that set of phases which actually saw New Zealand turn it over and drive deep into the Scottish half also saw injuries to Marfo and Fagerson who had been excellent to that point.
Half-time: Scotland 3-3 New Zealand
The long-expected first try came minutes into the second half, hooker Codie Taylor lurking out on the wing and getting an easy run in. Beauden Barrett couldn’t convert, but given how tight the defences were 3-8 looked like quite a lead. It was to be expected – Steve Hansen didn’t spend long in the changing room at the break, clearly letting the players think about what they’d done – given Scotland a sniff. Unacceptable, clearly.
The try shifted the game’s momentum clearly and the scrum wasn’t the same beast once Fagerson went off with Berghan facing his country of birth.
Luke Hamilton had a decent first cap but it ended painfully with a leg injury that saw him stretchered off and McInally moved into the back row.
Another scrum penalty led to another maul, which broke up, but New Zealand were starting to exert their dominance in the loose and Damian McKenzie (Scots qualified no less) scampered through the back line to dot down a neat little grubber from Sonny Bill Williams.
At 3-15 it was all looking a little less rosy than it had minutes before half time. Scotland were still gaining ground and finding holes, but then they were making little errors in the 22 that snuffled out all the attacking energy.
Finn Russell spared Scottish blushes with a timely interception even as it looked like New Zealand were away for another try, and he almost made it through at the other end. Damian McKenzie suddenly had plenty of work to do but he was a threat in the same way Hogg was.
Scotland won a penalty on the line, Finn tapped and went quickly. He was smothered, but illegally, by Sam Cane who was sent to the bin. They tapped quickly again and the Scottish pack stepped up led by the titanic Johnny Gray who battered though the defenders and stretched out for the try. Suddenly the Murrayfield roar was back.
It didn’t last too long.
A simple set move from the scrum saw two Scots defenders drawn by a dummy runner which meant when Sonny Bill did his thing out the back door, there was ample space for McKenzie and Barrett to combine for an elegant try that won’t have pleased Scotland defence coach Matt Taylor any. New Zealand had little ball and very few chances in the Scottish half but took their points.
Scotland to their credit never once let their heads drop and kept pressing. Just as Cane came back on, Wyatt Crockett was sent to the bin for slowing up ruck ball close to the line. Scotland chose the scrum to force a defensive change from New Zealand, but couldn’t make the advantage count. They earned another penalty as the All Blacks infringed again, but took a scrum and this time Berghan couldn’t resist New Zealand’s pressure and the penalty went the other way.
As usual, when you have to play at 98% effectiveness just to stay within 12 points of the All Blacks, tiredness sets in and mistakes come so it was perhaps to be expected.
Scotland had possession and forced New Zealand into 157 tackles, but couldn’t make it count as the All Blacks slow played the clock.
Then came the finish. Hogg grubber kicked it through behind the winger and Seymour gathered to feed Huw Jones who dived over in the corner.
Finn slid the conversion over from out wide and the score was 17-22.
They couldn’t could they?
With time almost up all they needed was just one chance, and it came from Stuart Hogg who showed the eye for a gap he’d shown all game. The fullback ripped through New Zealand off a well judged Huw Jones pass. He came tantalisingly close to making it, but was just hauled down by Barrett even as it looked he might score.
His despairing offload went forward. This was a superb, committed performance by Scotland who to a man gave everything and just came up short. If there was a downfall it was possibly the scrum but let’s not forget this was far from the first choice front row.
The years of agony continue for Scotland, but New Zealand won’t forget this one in a hurry, and nor should we.
Referee: Matthew Carley (RFU)
SRBlog Man of the Match: It’s nearly impossible to pick. Written off ahead of his matchup with Naholo, Lee Jones played the game of a man twice his size. Barclay and Jonny Gray were exactly the players they needed to be with a mammoth effort up front but it’s hard to argue with the official choice of Stuart Hogg. Find me a better 15 in World Rugby right now.