Vern Cotter made a dream start to life at Murrayfield as Scotland downed Argentina 41-31 in the first of their November Tests.
Scotland produced a galvanising display of running rugby to warm the cockles on a chilly November evening, scoring five tries – and butchering two more – to blow Argentina away 41-31 at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Both Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, touched down from the second-row, with Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour all crossing to subdue a Pumas outfit that rarely showed their teeth.
Greig Laidlaw created three of them, two quite brilliantly, and kicked 14 points in an imperious performance, while Finn Russell outside him lived up to his billing on his home debut.
Not so very long ago, the prospect of an encounter between these two sides might justifiably have turned few heads among the game’s purists.
Argentina forged a reputation for fearsome forward play, anchored by an unshakeable set-piece, while Scotland scored less often than Emile Heskey nursing a particularly troublesome hangover.
Throw in the biting cold and swirling breeze best experienced inside autumnal Murrayfield, and you could probably have been forgiven for expecting a slugfest.
That is no longer the case. Buoyed by fresh blood, fresh impetus – both in the coaches’ box and on the field – the pair now pursue a brand of rugby as exciting as it is engrossing.
Though at times under the floodlights accuracy and pragmatism was lacking, adventurous quick-tap penalties, offloads and running rugby were the order of the day.
With a couple of seasons spent battling the world’s best, and now, a maiden Rugby Championship victory under their belts, this is an Argentine team freed from the shackles of near misses and late heartbreak.
But despite breaking the deadlock in bizarre fashion just two minutes in, Daniel Hourcade’s men never really got going, losing confidence and discipline as the points mounted, before replacement Tomas Cubelli grabbed a late brace to restore a little pride.
The odd opener came with Scotland on the front foot down the short side, Maitland securing a high Russell punt and setting up promising field position. But as Laidlaw looked to release the onrushing Hogg, the skipper was smashed by Manuel Montero, his pass falling well behind its speeding target; flanker Javier Ortega Desio scooped up the loose ball and galloped home untouched from 60 yards.
Nicolas Sanchez converted, but the trend in galloping goliaths continued almost immediately. Strong carries from Ross Ford and Adam Ashe handed the Scots momentum inside the visitors’ 22, and it was the elder Gray who hit back, throwing a smart dummy as he powered over in the corner. Laidlaw’s touchline conversion hung in the wind, but dropped narrowly over the crossbar to level things up.
Sanchez landed a penalty and Laidlaw missed one off the upright before winger Juan Imhoff was sent to the sin-bin for a late shoulder charge on Tommy Seymour.
That seemed to bolster the confidence growing in Scottish ranks, and, showing a ruthless streak seldom witnessed in these parts, they struck twice in three minutes to stun their depleted opponents.
First, Gray Jnr, not to be outdone by big brother, used every inch of his considerable frame to squirm and stretch for the whitewash from close range, before Laidlaw’s quick thinking from a penalty on halfway saw him carve open the Argentine midfield and float a lovely pass out for Maitland to coast in.
The scrum-half converted both, and should have been lining up another two-point attempt minutes later but for Al Dickinson’s forward pass. He made do with a penalty that crept over from just inside Pumas territory.
Missed opportunities aside, Scotland were thriving. Laidlaw marshalled his forwards to great effect, while Russell showed exactly the sort of maturity Test rugby will demand of him – and on this evidence, there will be plenty more of that – with some lovely touch-finders into the corners.
Sanchez and Laidlaw both missed from the tee before the break, but Vern Cotter welcomed his team back into the dressing room armed with a 24-10 lead.
Little was going to plan for Argentina – struggling to win and retain possession, even the infamous scrummage yielded a penalty that, beyond Laidlaw’s range, Hogg lashed wide.
The full-back made amends in some style, following up yet another Laidlaw snipe – the scrum-half dispelling the myth perpetuated of late that he offers scant threat around the fringes – to sear over in the corner for a try converted by his captain.
The scrum-half added three more points from distance, before departing on 64 minutes with Ford.
Rob Harley was shown a dubious yellow for taking out a lifter in the lineout, and though Argentina threw bodies at the home line, true to the frustrating nature of their evening, it ended with a double movement and a Scottish penalty.
Wayne Barnes did reward the Pumas‘ inevitable set-piece dominance as he marched under the sticks to award a penalty try with ten minutes to play, but Juan Martin Hernandez, who converted the score, gifted Seymour a run-in straight from the kick-off with a dreadful pass inside his own 22.
Duncan Weir’s kick took Scotland, improbably, past 40 points, and despite a late flurry of action – Jim Hamilton binned for persistent team infringements, Cubelli leaping over a ruck to bag a converted try and snapping up a loose ball to sneak another – the scoreline would eventually flatter their South American guests.
Man of the match: Undoubtedly Greig Laidlaw, who ran the show for Scotland. He’s been under-fire recently but this was quite a response.
Moment of the match: The skipper’s blistering break and sympathetic ball out to Sean Maitland brought Murrayfield to its feet and put some daylight between the teams.
Villain of the match: Juan Imhoff’s sin-binning was needless and costly for the visitors.
Tries: R Gray, J Gray, Maitland, Hogg, Seymour
Cons: Laidlaw 4, Weir
Pens: Laidlaw 2
Yellow Cards: Harley, Hamilton
Tries: Desio, Penalty, Cubelli 2
Cons: Sanchez, Hernandez 3
Yellow Card: Imhoff
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Adam Ashe, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson,
Replacements: 16 Scott Lawson, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Alasdair Strokosch, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Sean Lamont
Argentina: 15 Joaqu