It could certainly be said that Scotland were dealt a bad hand when you consider the Pool B draw combined with its scheduling. But it’s all about controlling the controllables, so coaches say, and the possibility remains that Gregor Townsend’s men will play their unforgiving cards remarkably well.
This sunny and largely satisfying victory against game opponents means another bonus-point win, against Romania in Lille next Saturday, sets up a decisive clash against Ireland in Paris on 7 October.
A significant downside, however, was the failed head-injury assessment for the captain, Jamie Ritchie, that will rule him out of the Romania tie. A 12-day absence would mean he is available for what promises to be a crunch match against Andy Farrell’s men.
Tonga’s Afusipa Taumoepeau controversially avoided his yellow card being upgraded to red for the tackle. Rather confusingly, Vaea Fifita’s yellow card for a second-half hit on Finn Russell was upgraded to red and Townsend made his feelings clear, referencing a high tackle by South Africa’s Jesse Kriel in the Scots’ defeat two weeks ago.
“I heard the referee explaining there was mitigation in terms of height,” the Scotland head coach said of the challenge on Ritchie. “That’s why it stayed as a yellow. It’s very disappointing that our captain, one of our key players, was hit in the head and had to be removed from the game.
“This [the World Cup] is our showcase. This is our opportunity to show what is legal and what is illegal. What we want out of the game. And that’s two tackles now, both upright, both hit the head of our players. One had no sanction, not even a penalty, and one was only a yellow card. I don’t think that’s good enough.”
Confusion and frustration over officiating aside, however, Scotland will back themselves to have a strong chance of survival. To the considerable credit of all concerned, they looked like a team who had two weeks of constructive warm-weather training in the tank. Passes were fizzed around with abandon and the dirty work, at the breakdown and set piece, was done plenty well enough to give their talented back division a platform. Seven Scotland tries were scored and it could easily have been more.
The sound of bagpipes had echoed around Nice through the morning, thousands of Scottish fans showing a friendly determination to enjoy their day in the sun. Blair Kinghorn almost got them off to a flier, too, sprinting under the posts after a clever kick from deep, but knocked the ball on. Tonga were soon behind anyway when a powerful lineout drive allowed George Turner to flop over.
William Havili’s penalty reduced the 7-0 deficit after Rory Sutherland was penalised at a scrum. The Pacific islanders were competing hard and Solomone Kata crossed on the right wing following a crushing carry by Halaleva Fifita. Havili stroked the conversion over and it was suddenly a three-point advantage for Toutai Kefu’s men.
Tonga continued to batter into tackles, with Duhan van der Merwe and Chris Harris coming in for muscular treatment. Havili, the Tonga No 10, was penalised for a no-arms tackle and a beautiful sequence of passes sent Van der Merwe over. Kyle Steyn then scored on the opposite wing, barging through a couple of tackles on the edge of the 22 for the third. It was a seven-point lead.
The No 7 Rory Darge capitalised on more indifferent defending when he wriggled through to score under the posts with the first-half clock in the red. The first part of Scotland’s mission, an attacking bonus point, was complete by half-time.
Job done? Not so fast. Russell cracked a clearing kick straight down the throat of Kata and when another bullocking run led to the captain, Ben Tameifuna, smashing over, Havili converted to bring Kefu’s side within seven. George Horne danced over in the corner seconds after coming on, creating daylight on the board for Scotland. Kinghorn and Darcy Graham added further scores. It was comfortable, in the end, and Scotland are still alive.
Asked if the seismic meeting between their Pool B rivals, South Africa and Ireland, on Saturday had changed their outlook, Townsend said: “Reading a few comments after the game, it looked like Ireland were already in the quarter-finals. Even people chatting today, saying that Ireland are playing New Zealand? Maybe that’s already been decided? We know we have to win our next two games.” Game on in the pool of death.