They did everything but take their chances; they did everything but hold their nerve as history tempted them. In short, they did everything you can’t do against the All Blacks. And so the hunt goes on.
One of the two teams that invented international rugby 151 years ago, Scotland have still not beaten New Zealand. Here they dominated for all but the first 10 minutes and the last. In between they cut New Zealand time and again, they worked their way to within inches of the tryline, but that killer blow…
An unfortunate pattern developed whereby the referee, with Scotland swarming on the All Blacks’ line, blew his whistle and pointed skywards, and the crowd roared to celebrate a try. Only to realise in time that he had actually awarded a penalty against them, another nuggety flanker in black – often the excellent Dalton Papalii – having forced his way over the ball. That happened at least three times.
Finn Russell returned to the fold and pulled strings well, kicking accurately from the tee. Scotland’s wingers, little and large, Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe, were lethal in their different ways. Scotland led at the break, despite a disastrous start, and that lead had grown to nine points by the hour mark.
“It’s mainly disappointment I’m feeling,” said an ashen Gregor Townsend, whose dear friend and teammate Doddie Weir delivered the match ball from his wheelchair. “Disappointment that we don’t get to play New Zealand every couple of years. It’s been five years, and that will be the biggest lead we’ve ever had against them. And we didn’t win.”
The score in the last 20 minutes? Scotland 0 New Zealand 17. As for the score in the first 10 minutes – that read 14-0 to the visitors. In between times it read 23-0 to the hosts. The ease with which the All Blacks scored their opening two tries did not bode well, but Scotland had their best period – certainly their most effective – after that. And that does bode well.
Samisoni Taukei’aho’s in the third minute from a driven line-out was almost embarrassingly easy. Mark Telea’s try in the seventh, the first of two on his debut, was at least a fine counterattack.
But counterattacks first need attacks from which to spring. The good news at that point was that Scotland were already testing the All Blacks.
They continued to do so and had levelled five minutes later. A lovely inside ball released Stuart Hogg for a chip and chase. He had seemingly beaten the cover, only to be tackled off the ball by Anton Lienert-Brown – penalty try and yellow card. Two minutes later, Scotland were in again, Graham in brilliant style. The interception of David Havili’s hopeful pass was easy enough, but then he managed to burn away from Caleb Clarke and round Jordie Barrett.
The momentum was Scotland’s, dominating the second quarter. Graham was nearly in again for an even more spectacular try, but his foot clipped the line. Scotland should have scored more, but had to settle for just the one penalty, which Russell kicked for a 17-14 lead at the break.
By the hour mark, he had extended that lead to nine points with two more penalties. Again, Scotland dominated the quarter, again venturing to within inches of New Zealand’s line, only for the referee’s arm to encourage the crowd to erupt in vain. But they had that lead of more than one score as the game entered the final quarter.
Which is just when minds can bend in virgin territory. Hogg missed a high ball, and the All Blacks worked their way into the Scottish half. A penalty at a scrum gave Jordie Barrett the chance to pull them back to within six, their first points since the seventh minute.
The turning point came with quarter of an hour to go. New Zealand were pressing in front of the Scottish posts, when Jack Dempsey, on in the first half for the concussed Hamish Watson, knocked on in the tackle. He was shown yellow, the All Blacks set a scrum, and Scott Barrett drove over from close range. His brother Jordie landed the conversion to restore New Zealand’s lead.
With five minutes remaining, New Zealand put the game to bed. The penalty count had turned decisively in their favour now. From another raid, Rieko Ioane put Telea over for his second, and Jordie Barrett converted from the touchline. Scotland’s agony goes on.