Autumn Nations Series: Five takeaways from Scotland v New Zealand as Finn Russell shows his class in agonising defeat to All Blacks

Scotland fly-half Finn Russell Credit: Alamy
Scotland fly-half Finn Russell Credit: Alamy

Following a 31-23 win for New Zealand over Scotland in their Autumn Nations Series fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at Murrayfield.

The top line

A brave Scottish showing didn’t prevent the All Blacks from continuing 117 years of history as they managed to turn around a first half of indiscipline to win at Murrayfield.

There’s something about these two teams when they meet that provides open and thrilling games and this was no exception. With Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham benefitting from the recall of Finn Russell and his magic hands, the hosts were absolutely brilliant in the first half, with Graham sliding over for an early Scottish score after Samisoni Taukei’aho and debutant Mark Telea had both scored within the first 10 minutes, a few moments after the home team had been awarded a penalty try for a clumsy off-the-ball tackle by Anton Lienert-Brown on Stuart Hogg.

Unusually, Kiwi indiscipline absolutely hamstrung them throughout the first half and removed any form of platform for them, as they leaked 11 penalties and a penalty try in that first period.

But as Scotland tired and the All Black bench added impetus, Telea added another on his impressive debut, to go alongside Scott Barrett’s 66th minute effort.

Kiwi bench

Things were really rocky for New Zealand for long periods of this match and, with two new half-backs from last weekend in Finlay Christie and Beauden Barrett, they struggled for the shape, structure and simplicity that had characterised their brilliant performance in Cardiff.

Veteran scrum-half TJ Perenara and back-row Shannon Frizell made massive impacts as they came on around the 55 minute mark – Perenara adding far more pace around the breakdown and Frizell offering some real oomph into the close exchanges and in particular, the lineout effort.

With Rieko Ioane also lively off the bench replacing David Havili, a man that looked a little short of game time, New Zealand benefitted hugely from fresh legs and it was Perenara’s ability to play continuity rugby with tempo that caused Scotland to defend narrow and create the moment for Telea to go over in the right hand corner and for the All Blacks to seal the game.

Finn factor

If there was any doubt whatsoever, Russell spent 80 minutes reminding everyone that he is, without question, Scotland’s best fly-half. For reasons best known to himself, Gregor Townsend has been less than enthusiastic about selecting the Racing 92 man for the past season or so, favouring the more traditional but less threatening offerings of Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings.

But from the very first moment, Russell was at his bull-fighting best, a matador standing close to danger, fooling and feinting with skill and with cheek. His ability to stand as flat as you’d like on the gainline but then to make a variety of plays at the last moment sets him apart and creates havoc for defences, even ones as good as New Zealand’s.

When Russell plays well, Scotland’s gas men in the back follow suit and as noted, both Van der Merwe and Graham had memorable afternoons. At the back, Hogg was at his enthusiastic best, inspired by the service of little pops and offloads from Russell all day long and the Exeter full-back played at something near the top of his game.

The message Russell sent to Townsend is clear – when he plays well Scotland look to have another dimension to their play and if his forwards can provide the fast ruck ball they managed on Sunday, he is an absolute shoo-in for the Scottish starting berth.

All Black work-ons

Next week, New Zealand travel to play England at Twickenham for the first time in five years and playing them for the first time in four years since the Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat. There’s no doubt that still stings in the Kiwi camp and that they’ll be anxious for revenge. However, their tour thus far has shown one thumping of Wales and two jittery performances against Japan and Scotland.

They’ve learned some useful things about their squad – the emergence of Dalton Papali’i, player of the match on Sunday, at seven has given them a little more power and grunt in their back-row. Expect to see Jordie Barrett return at 12 alongside Ioane, with Beauden Barrett reverting to full-back. In the pack, Brodie Retallick will return from suspension which might possibly see the third Barrett, Scott, moved to blindside flanker.

With Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga certain to resume at nine and 10, New Zealand will have a lot more match control than they exhibited at Murrayfield. The key for them is to reduce the litany of stupid penalties they conceded against Scotland and make sure they offer no easy outs to England.

Scotland work-ons

This was an impressive display by the Scots but on three clear try-scoring opportunities their composure on the try-line let them down and on each occasion they either held on or sealed off, blowing any chance they had of closing the game out. They must remain calm under the expectation of scoring and finish off the moves their brilliant backs create.

In the scrum they’re to be feared, with Pierre Schoeman one of the very best looseheads in the game at the moment. The rest of the pack is buoyed with the return of Richie Gray alongside Grant Gilchrist, both able to provide enough lineout ball to feed their hungry three quarters.

Jamie Ritchie is doing an admirable job as skipper; changing between blindside and then, when Hamish Watson went off, openside flanker, he leads with passion and desire, a perennial pain in the opposition’s backside and a brilliant player around the fringes and breakdown. However, at times, his passion does just overflow and a calm head is needed when making key calls in marginal games.

Next weekend, he’ll be telling his troops about maintaining accuracy and completing under pressure – a couple of areas that perhaps let Scotland down in the last 10 minutes. However, the young flanker is emerging as the perfect choice of captain for his team and yet again he put in a mighty performance, even if, just like Scotland’s three efforts in the match, he and his team just couldn’t quite get over the line.

READ MORE: All Blacks launch late fightback as Scotland miss big chance of famous victory at Murrayfield

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