Scotland the brave, indeed. But another agonising one-point defeat to follow their controversial exit at the hands of the Wallabies at last year’s World Cup. Australia’s tilt at a European grand slam is still on, but they left the field with sheepish looks. They know how close they were to defeat.
Australia were ahead only once, after their centre Tevita Kuridrani crashed over by the posts five minutes before the end. Bernard Foley, Scotland’s nemesis last autumn when he kicked a contentious penalty at the death at Twickenham to deny them a place in the semi-finals, was never going to miss the chance of a winning conversion.
The Australia fly-half, outstanding in the destruction of Wales last week, landed 13 points but, if anything, he was eclipsed by his opposite number, Finn Russell, who performed brilliantly behind a young pack. Scotland outscored Australia by three tries to two, two of them scored by the young centre Huw Jones, who was making a Murrayfield debut.
And it looked like being one of the dream variety, especially when Australia were forced to play the last 10 minutes with 14 men when the replacement forward Will Skelton was sent to the sin-bin for scragging Jonny Gray at a ruck near the Scottish line.
Ultimately, the result was decided by Greig Laidlaw’s third conversion attempt, which struck an upright. Scotland’s captain said: “In the end, it was down to the thickness of paint on the posts. We were so close and it is massively disappointing.”
Scotland looked crestfallen at the finish and they have little time to lick their wounds, with another physical challenge coming from Argentina next Saturday.
It was especially tough on Ross Ford, their hooker, who was winning his 100th cap. Vern Cotter, Scotland’s coach, added: “It was a top performance and I am proud of the boys. There is a lot of emotion around at the moment, but we’ll put that aside and work hard on Monday to get things right for Argentina.”
Scotland had three forwards making their first senior starts, including the loosehead Allan Dell, who might sound like one of Robin Hood’s merry men but actually hails from the Eastern Cape. Jones, a 22-year-old centre who plays for the Stormers but was born in Edinburgh and raised south of the border, was also playing at Murrayfield for the first time after his debut in Japan last summer.
This Scottish team may look a bit raw but they had more possession in the first two minutes than Wales had in the entire first half last weekend and, after Alex Dunbar and Stuart Hogg made inroads into the Wallabies’ 22, the visitors strayed offside and Laidlaw kicked his first penalty of the afternoon.
Australia stormed back but Sekope Kepu knocked on with the tryline in sight and his side were in more trouble when the lock Adam Coleman was helped off the pitch with barely five minutes on the clock. Scotland, who also lost their No8, Ryan Wilson, with an ankle injury, cleared their lines and were soon bringing the house down. They won a quick lineout, Russell chipped the ball over the advancing defence and Jones gathered it to score the try with a curving 40-metre run for a perfect start.
Australia needed a quick response and they provided it. After Richie Gray, the Scotland lock, left the field for treatment, the Wallabies won quick lineout ball themselves from the towering Rory Arnold. Foley worked a lovely loop move and Reece Hodge battered his way over in the corner for a try that Foley converted.
Gray returned to the field and Scotland’s composure came back too.
Australia were making too many handling errors but pushing remorselessly forwards and, when the Scottish scrum was penalised, Foley made the scores level with a nerveless penalty before Laidlaw missed with a long-range effort of his own.
Jones, though, was making international rugby look easy. Tim Visser stormed down the left touchline and, after Scotland had worked the ball infield, Laidlaw and Zander Fagerson released the young centre, who bamboozled the Australia defence with a neat step before plunging over for his second try.
The home supporters sensed an upset. Not often in recent years have a Scotland team been roared off the field at half-time. They expected an Australian onslaught after the break and Foley soon landed another penalty.
However, Laidlaw won possession from a retreating Scottish scrum, Sean Maitland was stopped in the corner, but Scotland recycled the ball and their pack drove Jonny Gray over for a try confirmed by the TMO, Simon McDowell.
Laidlaw’s conversion struck a post and nobody in the stadium could guess that that would matter so much.
There was a worrying sight for Scotland when John Hardie, the early replacement for Wilson, who had an excellent game, was taken off. Both back-rowers will almost certainly miss the visit of Argentina. Pain all round for Scotland.