There is place on Corstorphine Hill in Edinburgh called the ‘Rest and be thankful’, where Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of skulduggery and adventure ‘Kidnapped’, has David Balfour and Alan Breck say their final farewells whilst overlooking the city. That is exactly how I felt at the end of Scotland’s pulsating match with Samoa.
Stevenson incidentally is buried on Mount Vaea, Apia, which is Samoa’s capital city and even he could not have written a more engrossing tale for this game of rugby. For all Samoa’s brilliance, chartering the choppy waters around St James’s Park was Captain Greig Laidlaw. I thought he gave a commanding performance and certainly played his best game in the blue jersey.
Throughout his game, he exemplified a calmness and precision mind to control things whilst others around him got sucked into Samoa’s game plan. It was a Samoan team full of dexterity that off-loaded and dominated the opening exchanges. One sensed that from the off, Samoa went back to their own script, where the flair was mixed with powerful running and thumping tackles. Forty nine points were scored in the opening half and as the Pacific Islanders risk and reward rugby floundered at times, gifting Tommy Seymour a try, Scotland would have been mightily relieved that they were only three points adrift of the Samoans at half time.
It was Laidlaw’s reading of the game that kept Scotland holding onto the shirt tails of the Samoans. His accuracy in the place kicking chores was significant in his 21 point haul and I remember on one occasion in the first half when he teased a penalty out of the Samoans by running at their lazy forwards who were scrambling to get back outside. He could have passed but recognised that he needed to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
The lineout was functioning well for Scotland and he recognised that when he asked Finn Russell to pepper the corner that lead to John Hardie’s try. The Scotland pack were tight in that catch and drive but they will be disappointed that they did not profit more in the second half when numerous chances were missed due to some inaccuracy and superb Samoan defence; not all of it on the right side of the law.
Time and again Scotland drove at the Samoan line and when Willem Nell was held up, Laidlaw made his match winning decision. Jaco Peyper, the referee had been playing advantage from yet another Samoan infringement. The decision by Laidlaw not to take the 3 points on offer that would have extended Scotland’s lead to 6 points and more importantly, not to concede territory when pressure was on, was a master stroke. The pack drove hard but when Laidlaw sniped round the corner to score the match winning try the roof was blown off the rafters of St James’s Park. There was time for one last page turner as once again Scotland’s defensive line was punctured with relative ease but in the pressure cooker that we witnessed, Scotland held on for a famous win.
Whilst I could criticise Scotland for sloppiness at the kick-offs and for yet another slow start there was much to admire about the strength of character within this team. I had mentioned in this column on Saturday that the one dynamic that all the players would have to cope with would be pressure. Even I felt that pressure in the commentary box.
Laidlaw sucked this up in bucket loads but he was also matched by John Hardie who continues to do his talking on the pitch. His battle with his opposite number Jack Ram saw the ‘kilted kiwi’ edge Ram to the breakdown and he put in some great tackles and effect a couple of crucial turnovers. I also felt that Scotland got to grips with the Samoan in the second half and when Tim Swinson, Josh Strauss and Fraser Brown joined the action they brought a zip to the forward effort.
Collectively Scotland did not quite dominate the areas of the game that they needed to. Finn Russell had a quiet game but we saw glimpses of the attacking qualities from Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg. What this team need to do is step up their intensity because when they get on that front foot and get momentum into the game they look a different team.
Thoughts though now turn to next week and the quarter final match against Australia. It’s interesting because the pressure is now off Scotland. They are not expected to beat Australia and as such I hope the players revel in the excitement of knock-out rugby. The weak ahead is one to enjoy. It is not a chore as when you play on a world stage it can be incredibly exciting. Samoa were due a performance and they delivered one on Saturday now it’s time for Scotland to deliver one this Sunday.