Scotland v New Zealand was a Test match that once again illustrated how fine margins can be the difference between winning and losing. On Top Of The Moon picks out some of the less obvious moments that nevertheless had a big impact on the outcome of an outstanding match.
CDP on the wing
It didn’t take long for Scotland to demonstrate their attacking intent in this match. In fact for the first 10 minutes New Zealand could do little more than defend and clear their lines. The Scots had already had a lineout inside the All Blacks’ 22 but the maul that was created from the setpiece was turned over. After an Aaron Smith box kick to clear there was another chance for the home side to get on the the front foot.
From a lineout near halfway Alex Dunbar punches up into midfield. Scotland eschew the expected pass to Finn Russell to continue heading to the far touchline and instead move back to the left. That splits New Zealand with their pack providing the front line defence on the narrow side of the ruck. Meat and drink to Stuart Hogg who just picks out a prop and, untouched, blasts past Nepo Laulala.
At this point Hoggy has Cornell Du Preez outside him – the big number 8 having been tasked with maintaining Scotland’s width – and the full back draws Waisake Naholo before making the pass.
It’s the sort of position the Edinburgh man normally loves to find himself in – Glasgow fans will recall (with a wince) a try in an 1872 Cup match of recent vintage that was created by Du Preez rampaging in the wide channels.
A mismatch with Aaron Smith is looming which surely means there are only 2 possible outcomes:
- CDP barrels over the scrum half – who he outweighs by 25kg (basically 4 stone in old money).
- Smith does enough as a speed bump but the Scottish back rower gets his hands free and offloads the ball (something he is quite exceptional at)
With Lee Jones on CDP’s shoulder (although off balance) and John Barclay and Ali Price on his inside there is the possibility for a 3 or 4 man rush onto Damian MacKenzie as the final All Black defender. Unfortunately the ball slips out of Cornell’s grasp and the chance is gone.
It was one of those situations where the system in place worked perfectly to put the team in a strong attacking or even scoring position but one of the moving parts broke down. There was no sign of Scotland allowing the one that got away get them down though. They just kept going in that first half, working their way back into the red zone time and time again but never quite finding the finish their build-up play deserved.
Taking the conservative option
A sequence of errors by Scotland took them from the attacking the NZ goal line to defending a scrum on their own 5 metres in the space of just 40 seconds of ball in play time. From there the All Blacks opted to scrum again after winning a penalty first time up. This was where it went wrong for the visitors and could have gone very right for Scotland.
Ali Price manages to nick the ball away from the back of the scrum. With Luke Hamilton off the setpiece like lightning and charging up into Beauden Barrett the Scots have left the opposition pack playing catch up and are starting to tie in their backline.
As the ball comes out of the ruck from one half of the Prussell bromance to the other, Sonny Bill Williams rushes up to try and make a big play – but he’s not reckoned with Finn’s dancing feet and the gallus one sidesteps with ease. This is when the big moment arrives.
With Barrett and SBW out of the picture the defender left chasing across to shut down Scotland’s stand off is second row Luke Romano. Outside him he only has 2 teammates – Ryan Crotty and Rieko Ioane. Outside Russell are Scotland’s 3 quickest players – Huw Jones, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour. If Finn puts his foot down and goes around Romano it’s a 4 on 2 against New Zealand’s defensive line with Damian MacKenzie dropped in deep on that side of the pitch and Waisake Naholo to cover across from the opposite wing.
It may be 80m+ from the Kiwis line but the set-up is almost a try-scoring opportunity. At the very least Scotland should be able to carry up to halfway and retain possession for another attacking push into All Blacks’ territory.
Understandably even the instinctive Russell sometimes feels the need just to relieve pressure and get the ball as far down the pitch as possible. Unfortunately in hoofing it long he picks out Mackenzie rather than finding grass and the diminutive full back is more than happy to carry back. A couple of phases later NZ win the penalty that ties things up with half-time looming.
These are the kind of moments that come and go in the blink of an eye at this level of rugby. Space, opportunities – these things are closed down so quickly. Identifying chances like this is more of an art than a science but doing that while under the intense pressure that the All Blacks bring to bear takes experience. Scotland will be in an even better place for what they went through and learned on Saturday night.
The third quarter of the game was a tough one for Scotland. They made a flying start and got to within a metre of the All Blacks’ line before conceding a penalty for holding on. After that the visitors looked like they were starting to take the stranglehold on the game and stretch away in a manner befitting the world’s number one side. From that initial second half attack the sequence from Scotland’s perspective went:
- penalty conceded (holding on)
- 8 phases from NZ lineout leading to try conceded
- kick off – NZ box kick back to Scotland
- 9 phases for Scotland – penalty conceded (off feet at breakdown)
- FK for NZ’s squint throw at lineout – Scotland opted for scrum
- penalty conceded (collapsing scrum)
- penalty conceded (in at side at maul)
- try conceded on penalty advantage
On 42.30 Scotland were a metre out from the All Blacks’ line looking to get 10-3 in front. On 51.00 they were 3-13 down with a conversion to come having had hardly any possession for the preceding 8½ minutes. The home side were on the ropes and needed something to stop the game running away from them. They found it in the least promising of circumstances…
Back on the attack again Hoggy chips through looking for space. A brilliant read by Mackenzie allows him to recover the ball and break the Scottish line. All of a sudden Codie Taylor is thundering up the touchline with support inside him. The score is going to move out 22-3 and the game will surely be over.
Standing between them, all on his own, is Finn Russell. Put yourselves in his shoes for a minute (not his brain – no-one could cope with that!) There’s no time to think, just react. Do you try and wrap up the ball carrier and risk getting bounced off? Go low and make it easy for your opponent to offload? Maybe the fact it’s a hooker makes up his mind – Ioane for example would most likely hold onto the ball until the last possible fraction of a second. The front row’s instinct is generally going to be to try and find a quicker man to finish off. Russell’s intervention is perfectly timed, darting into the space between the 2 leading All Blacks, tapping the ball up into the air before juggling and then catching it.
Not content with stopping a near certain try Finn then goes for the follow up. His kick into space runs deep into the New Zealand 22, forcing Barrett back. Russell is first man up in the chase, absolutely ending himself to close down his opposite number. He forces Barrett to offload to Mackenzie who has to set up a ruck after being tackled by Hogg. Finn makes sure his full back doesn’t need a hand but after that he takes a well deserved rest as a pillar at the next 2 rucks!
Ultimately it was this hard won field position that lead to the phases of play that saw Sam Cane yellow carded and Jonny Gray driving over for a try. The scoreboard reading 10 – 15 and with a man advantage instead of 3 – 22 and 15 v 15. And all arising from one man’s brilliant instinctive reactions and sheer hard work to back it up.
What might have been
After the 14 point turnaround for Jonny Gray’s try that started with the Finnterception almost immediately there was what could well be considered a 12 or 14 point switch in the opposite direction.
New Zealand kick off deep, looking to contain Scotland and run down the time on the yellow card (incidentally what exactly was Sam Cane doing on that stationary bike on the sidelines? He’s supposed to stay in the sin bin until his time is up…)
It’s a fairly bog standard exit by Scotland. CDP hits up to just outside the 22. Price box kicks but can’t go direct to touch. It’s here that having one of the premier exponents of chasing and receiving kicks benefits Scotland. Tommy Seymour’s excellent leaping catch and placing the ball back in field before he is taken to touch puts Scotland on the front foot.
Things start to get a little untidy at this point. First Finn Russell takes the ball up, bobbling it on the ground (fortunately backwards). With the forwards firing out offloads and wide long passes somehow possession ends up with Peter Horne. There are 60,000 odd Scotland fans urging him to boot it long it but instead he decides he likes the look of the unstructured mess in front of him. He breaks straight through the line, pursued by a squad of his team-mates. Horne is well tackled by Aaron Smith but Jonny Gray brilliantly scoops the ball up, barely breaking stride. When Gray is tackled he’s able to offload to the onrushing George Turner.
Then the moment arrives. As Turner goes to ground the ball is loose but still just about in his possession. He goes for the offload to Ali Price. The hooker does maybe bat the ball back a bit too firmly. Price himself, with adrenaline pumping, is maybe following just that little bit too close. As the ball is spilled the instinctive reaction in the stands is probably “why did he do that?” Well here’s why:
If the offload works and Price takes it on he’s attacking the short side after the last tackle. He’s heading straight towards Codie Taylor, the ABs hooker. In support the wee scrum half can call on all 3 of Scotland’s front rows plus Finn Russell and Peter Horne. Facing them are just Wyatt Crockett and Rieko Ioane (who already by this point appears to only have partial use of his right arm). If the offload sticks how far could Scotland have carried it? Break the line in that position and even if New Zealand do get cover across the try scoring opportunity (and chance to take the lead) would still be there.
Instead the ball bobbled forward which lead to an All Blacks scrum – which in turn lead to Beauden Barrett’s try and the gap stretching out to 12 points again. On such fine margins are games won and lost – but you can’t win a tombola unless you buy a ticket…
There was a moment late on that seemed like the point at which Scotland’s front row injury crisis finally came back to haunt them. Looking a little further back in the game provides some context though.
The scrum option was taken 3 times in the second half by Scotland. The first was from a Kiwi squint throw with the scrum chosen ahead of a lineout. Rather oddly the lighter George Turner (who had just replaced Luke Hamilton) was immediately put into the front row rather than keeping starting hooker, Stuart McInally, there. The scrum was a mess and, on the say so of Assistant Referee Romain Poite, Simon Berghan was penalised for collapsing. The big tighthead walked away shaking his head – and on review it’s easy to see why. Almost the entire destabilisation of the scrum arose from New Zealand loosehead Kane Hames boring in at an angle.
Now there’s little that could be done to change the decision at the time but as will become clear this would have repercussions later. It was a situation that needed the player who was closest to the foul play to communicate to the skipper exactly what was happening and for the captain to then make it clear to the ref what to look out for.
Later on after Crockett’s yellow card Barclay again opted for a scrum – this time from a penalty. It was a reasonable option at the time. The maul had struggled to make much ground; it meant getting one of the Kiwis back rows off to be replaced by a prop (that man Hames again…); and a quick feed and hook would give Scotland the opportunity to launch their backline one-on-one against their opponents just metres from the line.
NZ did manage to stifle the danger from that play – but only by coming offside and giving another penalty away. There seemed to be unanimity among the Scottish leadership group that repeating the scrum option was the right decision. Up against 7 men and with McInally restored to the front row there was surely another opportunity for quick ball?
Instead the Scottish pack was driven back with Simon Berghan penalised for popping up. Chance gone. Clock still running. Again on review it’s pretty clear to see what happened, even when not versed in the dark arts of the front row. Hames repeats his trick of driving in and under Berghan leaving the tighthead nowhere to go but up. In fact the Kiwi prop really goes for it this time, dropping his bind so he can get both shoulders under his opposite man.
If Scotland had been persuasive enough after that previous incident it’s possible they might have convinced Mr. Carley to station himself on Hames’ side of the scrum. From there either it would have been an easy decision to penalise the All Blacks – most likely for dropping the bind – or the loosehead would have realised he had to drive straight. A stable scrum should have allowed Scotland to get the ball back in play and potentially score their 2nd try 5 minutes earlier than they ultimately did.
The significant moments in games can come and go extremely quickly. Sometimes they end up as game changers, sometimes the potential is never realised. The big difference between the very top teams and those chasing to catch up with them is that they find a way to convert more of those opportunities in their favour while snuffing out their opponent’s chances.
Scotland are still learning and still growing. There are 5 moments mentioned here but the game was littered with other plays that could have changed the momentum or the scoreboard at the time. Undoubtedly Gregor Townsend and his coaching staff will be taking everything they possibly can from this match to allow the players to grow and improve. The next time they tackle New Zealand might well be a World Cup quarter final in 2019. Hopefully the boys will be ready to take their next chance to make history.