Scotland ended their November campaign with an impressive 37-12 win over Tonga at Rugby Park in Kilmarnock on Saturday.
Scotland exorcised their demons of 2012 with a comfortable 37-12 triumph over Tonga to round off a successful November Test series.
Tries from Blair Cowan, who enjoyed his best performance in a navy shirt to date, Stuart Hogg, Alex Dunbar, Geoff Cross and Tommy Seymour ensured there would be no repeat of the Scots’ insipid Aberdeen loss to the same opponents.
Two years ago, almost to the day, Tonga raided polar Pittodrie, outscoring Scotland two tries to nil and notching a first-ever victory over their hosts, spelling the end for Andy Robinson in doing so. It was one of Scottish rugby’s lowest ebbs in the professional era.
But this Scottish side has a very different feel to it than the disjointed, confidence-bereft gaggle that succumbed to the marauding Islanders of yesteryear, Vern Cotter instilling confidence, freedom and ruthlessness in his new charges in equal measure.
Despite the narrow confines of the Rugby Park pitch, which despite its moniker, has not played host to the oval ball game for nearly fifty years, both teams sought an expansive, offloading style of play, yielding errors and infringements aplenty, but also some tidy Scottish tries.
With ten minutes gone, Hogg’s failure to roll away presented fly-half Latiume Fosita with an opportunity to open the scoring from the left touchline; the mop-headed pivot converted smartly.
The Scots, eager to set the ball rolling, eschewed a spree of kickable shots at the posts in favour of multiple cracks at the corner and the line. Though the Tongan pack repeatedly thwarted their driving maul, they did so illegally on no less than four consecutive occasions – JP Doyle sent skipper Nili Latu to the bin, Scotland remained patient, and on attempt number five, Cowan burrowed his way to the whitewash under a mass of bodies.
Laidlaw converted, but Fosita soon flighted over his second penalty from the ten-metre line after Scotland fluffed their lines in midfield, and added a third when Ross Ford failed to roll away.
The Tongans are known for ferocious defence that often toys with the boundaries of legality, but it was Dunbar who saw yellow for what TMO Carlo Damasco deemed a dangerous tip-tackle.
The penalties kept coming, and Fosita, almost flanker-esque in physique and clad in scrum cap, continued to punish home indiscipline with each languid swing of his right boot.
Strike number four sailed over on the half-hour mark, though the fly-half was perhaps a touch too languid in clearing from his own in-goal area moments later, Finn Russell seizing on the charge-down only to be pulled back for offside.
Tonga continued to press, however, and their hulking carriers, both backs and forwards, made dangerous inroads into the Scottish 22 – centre Hemani Paea was particularly threatening.
Indeed, an overlap and a try in the corner beckoned for the Islanders, but for a huge Russell hit, forcing the ball from Fetu’u Vainikolo’s grasp, and allowing Hogg to scoop up and race the length of the pitch.
Laidlaw added the extras, and fumbled a great chance for a third with the clock red from a neat lineout move.
The theme of Scots infringing with folly and consistency continued after the break, Fosita pulling his fifth attempt wide on 44 minutes, after what by my count was a fifth penalty for not rolling away. Such indiscipline will prove more costly against more potent opposition.
Potency is something Scotland have rediscovered this November, however, and though space appeared to be at a premium in the Tongan 22, Russell switched play and allowed Dunbar to swivel and step brilliantly past Viliami Ma’afu, and outpace Paea Fa’anunu to the corner flag.
Laidlaw missed, but his centre’s score administered the Scots an injection of pace and incisiveness. Dunbar again broke into the 22, and a period of pressure yielded the captain’s first penalty of the match, handing the hosts a ten-point advantage.
The scrum, solid in the first half, began to dominate, sapping the energy of the Tongan eight, while the Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, augmented busy shifts in the loose by ruling the skies.
Cross, resplendent as ever with flowing Nordic facial hair, forced his way over following a tidy Hogg break and more strong carrying from Cowan, Laidlaw converting.
Seymour continued his prolific, and opportunistic November by dotting down Duncan Taylor’s tap-back of Russell’s up-and-under in the Tongan in-goal area, though the fly-half could not convert, and added a fitting symmetry to the morale-boosting series, having scored in all three Tests.
Man of the match: Blair Cowan was excellent at the breakdown, snaffled plenty loose ball, carried well, making over 30 metres, and scored his first Test try.
Moment of the match: Alex Dunbar‘s try was the beginning of the end for Tonga.
Villain of the match: Nothing nasty to report.
Tries: Cowan, Hogg, Dunbar, Cross, Seymour
Con: Laidlaw 3
Pen: Laidlaw 2
Yellow: Dunbar (24 minutes)
Pen: Fosita 4
Yellow: Latu (12 minutes)
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Ryan Grant, 19 Kieran Low, 20 Alasdair Strokosch, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Duncan Taylor.
Tonga: 15 Vungakoto Lilo, 14 David Halaifonua, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Hemani Paea, 11 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 10 Latiume Fosita, 9 Sonatane Takulua, 8 Viliami Ma’afu, 7 Nili Latu (capt), 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Joe Tu’ineau, 4 Tukulua Lokotui, 3 Paea Fa’anunu, 2 Aleki Lutui, 1 Tevita Mailau.
Replacements: 16 Elvis Taione, 17 Sione Lea, 18 Sila Puafisi, 19 Lisiate Fa’aoso, 20 Hale T Pole, 21 Tomasi Palu, 22 Kurt Morath, 23 Sione Piukala.
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Assistant Referees: Greg Garner (England), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Carlo Damasco (Italy)
By Jamie Lyall at Rugby Park