If you are looking for a bad start to an international test match, how about losing your one genuinely world class player in the warm up?
Stuart Hogg was forced to drop out late on with a groin twinge, and it meant a reshuffle of the backline: Sean Maitland going to fullback, Byron McGuigan on to the wing and Ruaridh Jackson on the bench.
The atmosphere was certainly nowhere near as charged as before the New Zealand test last weekend. The game even kicked off while the music was still going, and it had barely stopped before Pascal Gauzere had awarded Australia a penalty. Gauzere and Barclay don’t always see eye to eye at the breakdown and he gave a second kickable penalty almost at the next breakdown. Reece Hodge slid it wide of the posts – but it could have been a long afternoon had it continued like that.
Australia were well served with ball carriers and they probed the expected channels in the Scottish line early on. Tommy Seymour slipped off an early tackle and you hoped he wasn’t having one of those games – although certainly in the first half, he did.
The roar of the BT Murrayfield crowd came back when Scotland made the best part of 30 metres with a rumbling maul. Huw Jones almost put Ali Price away during the referee’s advantage but the pass went awry. To compound it, Finn put the kick to touch past in goal, giving the Wallabies a scrum rather than Scotland the 3 points they could have had.
Set an example by Stuart McInally and Hamish Watson, in his first start Byron McGuigan finally got his Scotland career going with a couple of hard carries and a spell of solid pressure gave Finn Russell the first points with a kick at goal 15 minutes in. It really kicked into gear just a minute later when he created the first try with an opportunistic hack – of the sort he has been wise to all season in the Premiership where he is the top try scorer – when a poor pass from Bernard Foley left the ball on the deck. McGuigan hoofed it into space and managed to cope with a few odd bounces before dribbling it round Hodge on the goal line and diving on it.
As if that wasn’t enough of a fairytale start, he nearly had another try inside 20 minutes chasing a chip kick fter a neat breakout with Russell but was denied by the hand of Will Genia who just got to it a second before.
With a makeshift backline, Scotland were making the most of the possession and doing well at the set piece but when it spun wide or even wide-ish there wasn’t quite the speed of movement or decision making we’re now used to with Hogg in harness. Plenty of chances went amiss.
The defence looked sharp and withstood most that Australia threw at it in the first half. The Wallabies are a shrewd side though despite the multiple handling errors they made, all they needed was to get within close range for Bernard Foley to thread a neat grubber through for Tevita Kuridrani to land on, Maitland in tow like one of those fish that hang out on whales.
Their second try came minutes later, Foley and Kuridrani again combining with a grubber move but their ball came from a Tommy Seymour fumble as he continued another forgettable half of rugby and the momentum was going the wrong way. Maitland hauled Foley down but he managed to offload it to the big centre for his second try.
Just when it looked like Australia might take all the momentum into half time, Sekope Kepu made a brainless shoulder barge on Watson’s head at the breakdown and was red-carded. That altered the game dramatically. If you are looking for a bad end to a half of rugby…
Scotland took the lineout, set the maul and barged towards the Wallaby line. Ali Price took the ball out, feinted one way then went the other but had long enough arms to dot it down. Finn Russell converted to restore the advantage to Scotland.
Half-time: Scotland 17-12 Australia
Australia came out at a canter in the second half and within minutes were camped on the Scotland line. They probably hoped to get a foothold in the match before Scotland’s man advantage took its toll on their stamina. In the end it was a pretty easy score that Kurtley Beale made by darting through a gap between Hamish Watson and Finn Russell.
With Australia now back in the lead, Scotland found an interesting response, making a meal of a tap penalty as Price’s offload to McInally spilled loose. Luckily Australia spilled it in turn and the play was so disjointed that all McGuigan had to do with the ball at his feet was to spin it left to the deceptively quick Maitland (when he gets going) who had an open run in past several Wallaby forwards who couldn’t catch him.
From that try, Scotland looked resurgent and the Wallabies looked like a team at the end of a long season giving up on the idea of a surprise party for Stephen Moore in his last game.
The one man disadvantage probably was the decisive factor; the Scottish tempo would tire 15 men let alone 14 and as they had against New Zealand they stuck to the blueprint rigorously.
After some pretty loose hot-potato from both sides, a series of pick and goes close to the line got Scotland into the 22 and when it came left Jonny Gray at first receiver had an easy run in. You’d back any of the five guys outside him to have scored it too.
The substitutes bench made a physical impact of the sort you want, Jamie Bhatti and Zander Fagerson with several huge charges into tired Australian bodies for big gains in ground.
Scotland too were sharper in their game managament. Huw Jones had been quiet for most of the game but when Finn Russell took a quick tap just inside the 22 and spun it right in the centre’s general direction, he had too much pace to be stopped once he managed to gather the ball. Russell missed his second conversion but by then it was Scotland 34-17 and the home side looked well in control.
Byron McGuigan took his second try on the hour mark even as a dispirited Stephen Moore had left the action for the final time to an ovation from the crowd. Price carried it close but couldn’t stretch out this time, the ball was fed to Maitland who had linked well with McGuigan all afternoon and he popped it out to the Sale man for a simple finish.
The Wallaby bench did actually help to lift the visitors with fresh legs welcome for a team who were all having to cover that little bit of extra ground, and they spent the period after the hour mark camped in the Scottish half. Gauzere went to the TMO who ruled that Lopeti Tomani had indeed squirrelled his considerable bulk under the ruck and over the line for the try.
A brief respite.
At 39-24 the Scots still felt pretty safe but they were a little cavalier with the penalties in the last quarter of the game. Without a man advantage it could have been a different story, but John Barclay wasn’t having any deviation from the plan and battered over from close range under the posts to make it 46-24.
Ever a stickler, Gauzere binned Kurtley Beale for slapping the ball out of play as he and McGuigan chased for it which to be fair felt like kicking the poor wombat in the bum when its head is stuck in a hole.
Scotland got the ball straight into a maul from the lineout and it was only ever going one way. The hugely impressive Stuart McInally at the back of the maul was the beneficiary, on for a second spell after replacement FraserBrownhad gone off with a head knock. It was no less than he deserved after a fine series, and it put fifty past Australia in an 8 try win.
Can you imagine if Hogg had been on the park?
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (FFR)
SRBlog Man of the Match: Byron McGuigan did well for his two tries given the notice he had that he was starting (about 5 minutes). Watson and McInally were superb but John Barclay led from the front. His penalty-winning turnover just after the hour mark killed any hope of an Aussie resurgence in the game off and his try capped it personally.