The Test window may not start until next weekend, but Scotland chose to kick off their Autumn Nations Series a week early with the visit of Australia. The Wallabies were welcoming back their talismanic openside Michael Hooper to the squad—though James Slipper retained the captaincy—and though the visitors appeared to have the upper hand early on, Scottish jackalling provided some crucial turnovers. However when a scrum penalty allowed the Scots to kick themselves up to just outside the Australian 22, they took advantage of their first real attacking opportunity, with some well-timed passes from Sione Tuipulotu and Blair Kinghorn unleashing fullback Ollie Smith to step 2 defenders to go over for the opening try. A Bernard Foley penalty quickly cut the deficit as he continued his return to Test rugby, but the Scottish defence and some poor control at the breakdown kept the attack in check, and when the Scots found themselves down the other end the should have made it 2tries from 2 attacks, only for Tuipulotu to fumble the wide pass with the corner at his mercy. However, a penalty gave the hosts another bite at the apple and they laid siege on the try line, only for early replacement Glen Young to find himself held up over the line. A trio of penalties in quick succession saw Scotland go from attacking the Australian 22 to defending a lineout 5m from their line, but the defence held strong and another great jackal allowed them to win back the ball and clear their lines. As the clock ticked down at the end of the first half, a failure to roll away from Dave Cherry allowed Foley to en the half with a kick at goal, which he successfully hit to put the Wallabies ahead 5-6 at the break.
The second half could not have started much better for Scotland: Foley saw the ball slip out of his hands as he tried to pass wide in a strike move, and Blair Kinghorn was able to hack it on and win the footrace to score his team’s second try, while also kicking the conversion to make it 12-6. As the visitors struggled with their discipline early in the half, the Scots were going to the corner with their penalties but failing to get the results they wanted as the Wallabies dealt with the driving maul, with Taniela Tupou winning 2 penalties in his first 10 minutes in the pitch to end 2 attacks. after a third 5m lineout maul was immediately stopped in the second half, Scotland chose to call for the tee with the next penalty and Blair Kinghorn added the 3 points to start pulling away on the scoreboard. The home team were taking over the game, and when Duhan van der Merwe beat Andrew Kellaway to Ali Price’s box kick, he broke down the wing and was stopped just short by Bernard Foley and Tate McDermott, who was then the victim of a dangerous clear-out by Glen Young, who was sent to the sin bin, with referee Luke Pearce judging that the contact being made by his bicep reduced the danger compared to contact with the shoulder. With the extra man for 10 minutes, Australia started looking for gaps and found a dangerous grubber into the in-goal well covered by van der Merwe, but the extra man and increased speed of ball with the arrival of Nic White soon made a difference as they forced an overlap to send skipper Slipper over just after the hour. An error from Tom Banks trying to take a Blair Kinghorn kick above his head in the swirling winds of Murrayfield gifted the hosts a lineout in the 22, however after setting a platform, the wide ball to captain Jamie Ritchie was just a little too high for the flanker, who was probably left wishing that he had hugged the touchline rather than coming some distance infield. Meanwhile just minutes later, an awful penalty kick to the corner from Foley was let off as van der Merwe and Smith failed to communicate and allowed the ball to bounce in between them and into touch, while a penalty off the resulting phase allowed Foley to kick the Wallabies into a 15-16 lead with 9 minutes remaining. With just 2 minutes left in the game, Tupou was penalised for not supporting his weight at the breakdown and Blair Kinghorn stepped up to kick the Scots into what should have been a late lead, only for him to pull the ball left of the posts, and with the clock in the red, the Wallabies made sure that their restart bounced into touch to secure a 15-16 victory.
Making it worse
Except for the try when down a man, Scotland’s defence looked like it had answers for the questions that Australia were posing, while the jackals were a constant menace for the Wallabies. However, Scotland were never able to truly pull away on the scoreboard, and eventually paid the price.
While part of this was down to costly handling errors and an insistence on continuing to kick to the corner (when the opposition was dealing with the 5m lineouts) rather than slowly build up a lead 3 points at a time, the manner of Scottish indiscipline is what really killed them.
Not only did Scotland concede more penalties, but the would also give them away in burst of 2 or 3. What this meant is that almost every time they gave away a penalty, they were then compounding the issue with more penalties, allowing the visitors to first clear their lines, then find an attacking position, then either kick for goal or go for the corner to put heavy pressure on the defence. As good as their defence is, if they keep allowing the opposition to get possession and territory, it is just gifting the opposition the game.
What will be even more disappointing is how many penalties were soft or stupid. Multiple times they were penalised for putting too much pressure on the Wallabies lineout, there was a lazy tackle off the ball by Pierre Schoeman, who had earlier been penalised for jumping into a tackle, and while Grant Gilchrist’s knock on meant that Glen Young’s illegal cleanout did not cost a try, it still allowed the Wallabies to clear their lines with no pressure, rather than having to win the scrum and set up a clearing kick, which would have likely given Scotland the ball around the edge of the 22.
Scotland’s defence should just theoretically get better with the return of Chris Harris next week. But until the team sorts out its discipline, much of this defending will be in vain.
The race for number 10
With a World Cup just a year away, the lack of a clear starter at 10 must be a real worry for the Wallabies. Quade Cooper looked in position to take that role, but injury has left him unavailable at a crucial time. In his absence, Noah Lolesio looked to be the obvious choice, but has struggled to keep hold of the shirt in recent years and has recently found himself playing backup to Bernard Foley.
And that in itself is a worry to me. Foley can be a great talent who can win games—just look at the victory over England at RWC2015—but he also has a long list of questionable performances in the gold shirt. Even tonight, he struggled to create anything of note, while a couple of kicks were horribly mis-hit (though he got away with one thanks to a Scottish mistake) and a handling error during a strike play led to Kinghorn’s try.
At 33, it’s likely that the World Cup will see the end of Foley’s career, and it feels like a match against Scotland would have been the right chance to increase Lolesio’sexperience as a Test starter, especially as he has generally performed well in recent outings for the Wallabies. With 4 games still to come on the tour, Dave Rennie has a big call to make. Does he stick with Foley as the starter, which will likely see Lolesio on the bubble for the World Cup squad (if Cooper is fit) and delay his development? Or does he try to give them both roughly equal playing time, which in turn reduces the time that players can gel as a combination. The selection against France next week will be telling…