Scotland 45-17 Tonga
Scotland got their Pool B Rugby World Cup campaign up and running in Nice tonight with a seven tries to two victory over Tonga.
Immediate reflection was much more “job done” and plenty still to work on – as Scotland acknowledged in their post-match media chat – than any OTT celebration, but with Romania up next in six days’ time in Lille, Scotland can build towards what is being billed as a showdown with Ireland in Paris next month.
With Finn Russell in ringmaster supreme mode, tries came from George Turner, his tenth for Scotland, Duhan van der Merwe (his 21st), Kyle Steyn, Rory Darge, George Horne, Blair Kinghorn and Dary Graham. Russell added ten points through five conversions.
At least, two other gilt-edged try chances were passed up and the spectre of points difference could yet loom.
Let’s remember though, that Scotland’s task to sustain interest beyond the pool stages is to win each of their remaining matches against Tonga, Romania and Ireland with a try scoring bonus point . . . (and even that might not be enough).
So, in that sense, it was mission accomplished in tonight’s salvo, coming as it did off the back of the 3-18 defeat to South Africa a fortnight ago.
It had been a sultry afternoon in Nice with temperatures in the mid-20sC but as kick-off loomed it had started to cool down a tad.
Tonga performed their traditional expression of cultural identity, the Sipi Tau, and kicked off through stand-off William Havili. Ben White’s box kick from Jack Dempsey’s catch enabled Tonga to counter but from a turnover Scott Cummings and Sione Tuipulotu released Kinghorn.
Kinghorn hoofed the ball upfield and set off in furious pursuit. He appeared to be winning the race against the Tonga back three, only for the ball to take a wicked deflection off the post and Kinghorn to knock-on two metres short.
Tonga cleared from the scrum five but were soon back just outside their 22 after their backs had encroached offside.
Russell’s touch-finder, Richie Gray’s catch and a thumping driving maul set up Scotland’s first try of the match – and indeed their first since Zander Fagerson’s score against Japan four years ago – and it stayed in the front-row union as George Turner touched down. Russell converted (7-0, 5 mins).
A scrum collapse penalty against Rory Sutherland, saw Havili notch the South Sea Islanders’ first points (7-3, 9 mins).
Van der Merwe had a breenge on the left and Steyn was then ignited inside the Tonga 22 before ball was pirated by Tonga who found some respite.
A turnover secured by Tuipulotu and a gorgeous left to right 50:22 from Russell gave Scotland a foothold but White was burgled as he tried to break.
As the first quarter ended, Tonga took the lead. Off scrum ball, Solomone Kata dunted van der Merwe in a tackle. Tonga recycled and from a joyous sleight of hand by Charles Piutau, Kata was in at the corner. Havili converted (7-10, 20 mins)
The game was frantic at this stage. Sutherland made a break in midfield and Steyn almost got on the end of a Russell cross field punt, only to be thumped by a no-arms tackle from Havili, identified by TMO Ben Whitehouse.
From the lineout, Dempsey caught, the maul never really got up a head of steam, but, no matter, as Tuipulotu and Russell combined for Kinghorn to release van der Merwe for a well-crafted try. Russell missed the conversion (12-10, 25 mins).
An off the ball tackle by Sione Talitui saw Scotland motor back up the touchline and though there were some untidy phases, Chris Harris straightened and then off loose ball, Russell fired a delicious miss-two pass to Steyn, who galloped clear for a fine try. Steyn continues to have a prolific strike rate for Scotland. It was his tenth try on his 14th cap. Russell missed the conversion (17-10, 29 mins).
A high tackle by Afusipa Taumoepeau on Jamie Ritchie after 32 minutes saw referee Karl Dickson award a yellow card subject to further bunker review – but it looked a certain red card to this observer.
Jamie Ritchie departed to be assessed for a head injury with Russell assuming the captaincy.
As the half neared its conclusion, Scotland attacked through a grand White diagonal and intense follow-up tackle on Piutau. Harris was denied by Siegfried Fisi’ihoi on the right and van der Merwe was squeezed out on the right.
The referee was playing advantage, however, and from scrum ball, Dempsey picked up, assisted by White and Rory Darge bolted through from close-range for his fourth try for Scotland. Russell converted (24-10, 41 mins) and the try bonus point secured.
Half-time: Scotland 24 Tonga 10
The second-half began with the un-named “foul play review officer” determining that there was “mitigation” in Taumoepeau’s head on head contact on Ritchie, so the left winger rejoined the fray after 41 minutes.
A clumsy block by Cummings as Sutherland rampaged, enabled Tonga’s stand-off Havili to find a grand touch inside the Scotland 22, and though Scotland pirated ball, Kata picked up a stray clearance from Russell and with the Scotland defence fractured, Tonga’s tighthead and captain Ben Tameifuna steamrollered his way in for a try. Havili converted (24-17, 44 mins).
Scotland went to their bench in the 47th minute with Pierre Schoeman, George Horne, Huw Jones and Darcy Graham introduced.
Within six minutes, the impact was stunning.
Graham made an electrifying thrust, Russell fired a sublime pass to Cummings and ball made its way in somewhat pedestrian fashion to van der Merwe who after a bit of lateral bouncing, opted to power forward.
He did so with such good effect to uncork the fast-finishing Horne who dotted down in the corner. Russell kicked a glorious conversion (31-17, 53 mins).
Into the last quarter, and Scotland looked to augment their points difference and with Matt Fagerson and Schoeman denied at close-range, ball was eventually worked via Tuipolutu and the ever-creative Russell for Kinghorn to blaze in for this 14th try for Scotland. Russell goaled (38-17, 68 mins).
Van der Merwe set off on one of his typical belligerent canters but the pass did not find the intended recipient and a chance went abegging.
Kinghorn was denied a second score by a brave tackle by Pita Ahki and with just over three minutes remaining, Vaea Fifita was the latest to “meet the yellow card threshold” after a head-on-head contact on Russell. Later we learned this had been upgraded to a red card . . .
Scotland had striven for a big finish, but accuracy was proving elusive. .
Have a bit more faith folks. With the clock in the red, Russell and Jones countered from the Scotland 22 and Graham streaked away for a trademark exhilarating try – his 20th for Scotland and thus the Hawick dynamo reached 100 points for his country. Russell, who had been magnificent throughout, converted (45-17, 82 mins).
Full-time: Scotland 45 Tonga 17.
Scotland: Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby); Kyle Steyn (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Sione Tuipulotu (Glasgow Warriors), Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh Rugby); Finn Rusell (Bath), Ben White (Toulon); Rory Sutherland (unattached), George Turner, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Scott Cummings (all Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh Rugby) CAPTAIN, Rory Darge and Jack Dempsey (both Glasgow Warriors).
Subs: Ewan Ashman (Edinburgh Rugby) for Turner (58 mins), Pierre Schoeman (Edinburgh Rugby) for Sutherland (47 mins), W P Nel (Edinburgh Rugby) for Zander Fagerson (58 mins), Sam Skinner (Edinburgh Rugby) for Gray (64 mins), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors) for Ritchie (33 mins), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors) for White (47 mins), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors) for Harris (47 mins) and Darcy Graham (Edinburgh Rugby) for Steyn (47 mins).
Tonga: Charles Piutau; Solomone Kata, Malakai Fekitoa, Pita Ahki, Afusipa Taumoepeau; William Havili, Augustine Pulu; Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Paula Ngauamo, Ben Tameifuna CAPTAIN, Halaleva Fifita, Sam Lousi, Tanginoa Halaifonua, Sione Talitui and Vaea Fifita.
Subs: Sam Moli for Ngauamo (51 mins), Tau Koloamatangi for Fisi’ihoi (69 mins), Sosefo Apikotoa for Tameifuna (66 mins), Adam Coleman for Lousi ( 56 mins), Semisi Paea (69 mins), Sione Vailanu for Halaifonua (56 mins), Sonatane Takulua for Pulu (55 mins), Patrick Pellegrini for Havili (77 mins).
Mastercard Player of the match: Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland)
Red card: Vaea Fifita (Tonga)
Yellow card: Afusipa Taumoepeau (Tonga)