It was not quite the same kind of heartbreak as a year ago, and perhaps not quite as acutely felt, but Scotland’s second one-point loss to Australia in a row was similar in one key element.
Tevita Kuridrani’s try four minutes from the end allowed Bernard Foley to boot Scotland to defeat for the second time in 13 months with the final points of a thrilling, competitive contest at BT Murrayfield in front of a near capacity crowd.
The margin and Foley’s contribution were the same, as was the grumbling from the Scots about the referee, although John Lacey’s alleged contribution was not quite as immediately impactful as Craig Joubert’s.
Rather than one crucial decision, the Scots quite openly felt the Irishman persecuted them in the second half with an 8-2 penalty count.
They were particularly irate that John Barclay’s first-half pirating was suddenly judged illegal by Lacey in the second-half, to the point that the back rower – a heroic figure in the game and my man of the match – was on a yellow card warning for persistent infringement when Kuridrani scored his try.
Certainly the flood of penalties from Lacey after half-time meant that Scotland spent two thirds of the second half encamped in their own half, allowing the Wallabies to slowly strangle the life out of the home team.
Eventually, from loose ball at a botched lineout drive, Scotland’s midfield wilted – Finn Russell flew out of the line, replacement Peter Horne couldn’t hold Kuridrani and two-try hero Huw Jones missed the follow up tackle allowing the huge centre, who had endured an indifferent match to that point, to hold off Stuart Hogg’s brave tackle at the line and stretch over.
But just as refereeing issues clouded what happened last year, they shouldn’t be allowed to here. As in the World Cup quarter-final, Scotland failed to close out a winning position inside the last five minutes; in fact a far stronger one than they enjoyed at Twickenham.
This time they were eight points ahead with half an hour to go. Australia never panicked, but there was little pressure exerted on them to do so, Scotland seemingly happy to hang on their 22 like a boxer with his back to the ropes, dodging the blows rather than trying to force the contest back to the middle of the ring.
Greig Laidlaw, while ruefully noting had his conversion of Jonny Gray’s try gone over rather than hitting the post “we would have probably been home and hosed”, agreed that too often the Scots hurriedly banged possession into touch rather than booting long and trusting their chase to gain territory.
In cool analysis, Scotland were actually pretty fortunate to have reached the last five minutes still ahead – there was some poor Wallaby handling, a couple of crazy off-loads, an intercept and Barclay pilfering loose ball on the deck.
Most of all, Will Skelton – an amazing physical specimen but one apparently operating without a brain – surrendered a glaring scoring chance on the Scottish line with a late hit on Jonny Gray.
Vern Cotter talked about “wins within the content of the game” and there’s no question that Scotland were better in this game than tey were a year ago. Barclay was magnificent, Jonny Gray might be the most consistent player in world rugby right now, and someone has successfully lit a fire under Richie Gray, who had his best game for some time.
All the four new starters were a success, Jones’ speed offering something a little different and utilised superbly for the first try, a training ground move conjured up when Scotland team analysts noted how deep Wallaby full back Israel Folau sits in cover defence.
“It’s worked perfectly every time we tried it in training and now in the game,” said a delighted Jones afterwards of Russell’s deft chip and his blistering collection and run to the posts.
The new props got by in the scrummage and were a force in the loose, the development Zander Fagerson in particular . Hamish Watson did enough to merit his inclusion, but I think John Hardie proved when he came on that he has more to him.
In the backs, Finn Russell and Alex Dunbar stepped up massively from what’s been a modest season for both so far. The influence of attack coach Jason O’Halloran must be key here.
But the bottom line is that the Scots had a winning position and couldn’t close it out again. That, rather than anger with John Lacey, should be the cause of Cotter and his squad’s frustration when they analyse the game and start preparations for Argentina.
This team is still improving, but starting to win these close ones has to be the defining mark of their maturity.