NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, 10 Oct – After a spellbinding Pool B tussle featuring 49 first-half points and watched by Harry Potter author JK Rowling, captain Greig Laidlaw conjured up the wizardry to take Scotland through to a quarter-final against Australia on Sunday week.
After calling for a scrum rather than kicking for an eminently potable penalty six minutes from time, the scrum-half darted over the line for Scotland’s third try and landed the conversion that proved to be the difference, giving his team a 10- point advantage that a late converted try by the gun-slinging Samoans could not overcome.
Scotland emerged with a 36-33 victory that took them into the last eight as pool runners-up to South Africa, delivering a knockout blow to the Brave Blossoms of Japan in the process.
In the aftermath coach Vern Cotter paid handsome tribute to the outstanding Laidlaw, whose captain’s innings extended to 26 points in total: one try, three conversions and five penalties.
“Greig’s performance speaks for itself,” Cotter said. “He had an outstanding game, no two ways about it. Everybody knows and acknowledges his qualities as a leader and as a player.”
Laidlaw’s leadership was crucial as Scotland somehow managed to hang in while the Samoans, already out of the tournament, threw everything at them with a first-half of stunning Barbarians-style rugby.
There were three tries in as many minutes – from Samoan fly-half Tusi Pisi, Scotland wing Tommy Seymour and Samoa hooker Ma’atulimanu Leiataua. Scotland could not defend at restarts or contain the Samoans. Rey Lee-Lo, or “Reyzor” as the Samoan inside centre is known by teammates at Cardiff Blues, cut them to shreds, racking up an astonishing 120m in total carries and running in the team's third try before half-time.
Crucially, though, the excellent John Hardie claimed a second try for Scotland from a lineout drive and they kept it to 26-23 down at the interval.
Whatever Cotter said to his players at the interval, it had the required effect. They battened down the hatches and tightened their defences, keeping Samoa out until two minutes from the end of the game, when replacement hooker Motu Matu’u secured them a try that earned them a bonus point for four tries and another finishing within seven points.
“It’s a great feeling.” Laidlaw said. “We’re absolutely delighted, especially after missing out (on a quarter-final place) four years ago. It’s a great day for Scottish rugby.
“There were times in the game when we were down but credit to Vern and the coaches. They calmed us down at half-time.
“It’s a great achievement, probably the greatest honour of my career. Our goal from the outset was to qualify for the quarter-finals and we’re not finished yet. We believe there’s more to come.
“We believe we’re a dangerous side. Sean Lamont just said in the dressing that in his 100 caps this is the best squad in feeling of camaraderie. That goes a long way and that showed today.
“We’ll enjoy tonight and we’ll go into the quarter-finals with confidence.”
On a momentous day, veteran wing Lamont came off the bench to become Scotland’s second cap centurion, following in the footsteps of his former team mate Chris Paterson, and lock Richie Gray marked his 50th appearance with a fine game.
On the down side, flanker Ryan Wilson was yellow-carded for stamping, the missed tackle count totted up to a worrying 28, and Scotland’s vulnerability at the restart was an even greater cause for concern.
As for the brave, bold Samoans, all they had for their noble effort was two bonus points – and the prospect of having to qualify for RWC 2019, losing out on third place in the pool to Japan.
“It’s frustrating, very frustrating,” coach Stephen Betham reflected. “We played our finest rugby in our final game but we fell short.
“Credit to the boys. They gave it everything. I take my hat off for giving that effort right to the end.”