Nick De Luca highlighted composure as a key ingredient required by Scotland ahead of the Six Nations Championship when absorbing the lessons of a 21-15 defeat by Australia to round off Murrayfield’s viagogo Autumn Test rugby series.
Competitive where they were cannon fodder a week earlier in a whitewashing by South Africa, the Scots, nevertheless, failed to register a try and had to rely on five penalties by Greig Laidlaw to get on the scoreboard.
That fact wasn’t lost on Edinburgh centre De Luca who, with admirable candour, acknowledged there is much to work on – with several positives still emerging over the past three weeks also.
“We had a lot of pressure but couldn’t cross the whitewash for the second week in-a-row,” said De Luca, adding: “We did a lot of things right, much better than last week, But we gave Australia two chances and they scored two tries.
“We have to make sure that when we are making the breaks we are capable of we can keep our heads and convert our chances.”
Scotland kept pressing to the end but that only served to further frustrate the 41 times capped De Luca, “When they missed a [penalty] kick with five minutes to go I felt a wee touch of destiny. We got up to the other end . . . then under pressure lost the ball and let them out of jail.”
That incident came after stand off Duncan Weir had forced an attacking line-out inside the Wallaby “22” but at the moment of truth possession was conceded and the narrow margins were further summed up at the end of the first half.
Scotland’s best opportunity came in 37 minutes when Johnnie Beattie broke and fed Sean Maitland whose pass to the overlapping Sean Lamont forced the winger to slightly check his stride instead of running on to the ball; on such moments are Tests won and lost as the cover closed.
That perfectly illustrated the lack of cutting edge required to complete moves. Even then, as the Aussie line was besieged, the ball was moved wide and for a moment it seemed De Luca had managed to sack Christian Leali’fano and cross at the post.
Alas, referee Jaco Peyper, a controversial figure for his abnormally high penalty count, deemed insufficient advantage had been played for an earlier knock on at a ruck and De Luca said: “Unfortunately I knew it wasn’t a try just like the previous weekend.”
That was a reference to how he had made a magical break against the Springboks only for an obstruction in the build-up to cause the ref to intervene.
Such incidents served again to highlight the need to remain calm but De Luca feels there is time to put matters right before Ireland have to be encountered in Dublin on February 2.
“We need to make a fast start to the Six Nations and not take a couple of weeks to settle in.
“Defensively we are 95 per cent there but other teams have been ruthless against us.
“One of the positives we have is players coming through.
“Injuries have disrupted our back-line but with the possible exception of Tim Visser everybody affected should be available.
“It’s too early to say for sure about Vis [broken ankle] but Matt Scott [wrist] will be back and Stuart Hogg has just had his first game back for Glasgow.
“Others like Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett will be pushing and amidst the injuries Duncan Taylor has come in and had another great game against Australia while Tommy Seymour has acquitted himself very well.
“There could be a lot of positive things happening.”
In a reference to how experimentation is now expected to be put on hold De Luca said of the national coach: “Scott Johnson has said he wants the right people in the room for the Six Nations. As regards my form I have been pretty pleased to get the continuity provided by playing all three Autumn Tests.
“A lot of the stuff I did I was delighted with but there are work-ons as well.
“Really, it is a short turn-around to the Six Nations but first up Edinburgh play Connacht on Friday and those of us going back have to try to lift the players who had a tough result in Ulster [17-41] last Friday.”
It is unlikely De Luca or any of the Scotland contingent will be required to play against Connacht and, certainly, hooker Ross Ford will be out for a few weeks with a calf injury which required him to be replaced early on by Pat MacArthur.
That will allow the entire Scotland squad to reflect on one that definitely got away. The biggest indictment of the performance concerned the way Scotland failed to exploit a numerical advantage when Aussie lock Rob Simmons was sin-binned for a cheap shot on Moray Low during the second half.
This period saw the teams share a penalty apiece while the indiscipline shown by the Scots when infringing repeatedly needs to be addressed urgently.
Coach Johnson talked afterwards about a “naivety” in the ranks and nowhere was this more in evidence than when Australia were showered with free plays and had Leali’fano not missed with three straightforward penalties and a touchline conversion the visitors could have been well clear.
That touchline conversion came immediately after the break and again stemmed from weak defence. Just as prop Ryan Grant had been shrugged off when Israel Folau scooted through for the opening try so Sean Maitland appeared indecisive when putting in the hit that could have put scorer Chris Feauai-Sautia into the front row of the East Stand.
Such instances occur in the heat of the fray and where Scotland also got it wrong was with their back row blend in the relative tranquillity of the selection room. Here the absence of an out-and-out openside flanker could have secured more workable possession and while Chris Fusaro has seemingly been in fine form for Glasgow apparently his lack of bulk has not been deemed suitable for Scotland in the way that England and the Lions reaped rich rewards from the comparatively diminutive Neil Back.
Fortunately Ross Rennie continued his comeback for Edinburgh in Ulster and by returning to his best he should surely be one of the first names on the sheet in returning to the Dublin ground where he made his Test debut. Statistics showed Scotland had an abundance of territory and possession as well as having to make fewer tackles.
Sadly the only footnote that counted was the final result where Scotland were found wanting, though admittedly against the second and third best teams in the world.
How they move forward is what counts now and mixing in top company will help. “We do expect a lot of ourselves and while still disappointed to lose in the manner we did last week [against South Africa] another week helped us,” said De Luca.
That’s true. But after so many false dawns lets hope it really is an upward spiral this time . . .
Scotland: Penalties: Laidlaw (5).
Australia: Tries: Folau, Feanui-Sautia. Conversion: Leali’ifano. Penalties: Leali’ifano (3)
Scotland: Maitlan, Seymour, De Luca, Taylor (Evans 66 mins), Lamont; Weir, Laidlaw (Cusiter 58); Grant (Dickinson 46), Ford (MacArthur 20), M Low (Murray, 50),Gilchrist (Gray 66), Hamilton, Beattie, Denton (K Low 60), Brown.
Australia: Folau, Tomane, Leali’ifano, Harris, Feanui-Sautia; Cooper, Genia (White 66); Slipper, Moore (Fainga’a 77), Kepu (Alexander 58), Simmons, Horwill (Timani 58), Fardy (McCalman 75), Mowen, Hooper, Mowen.
Referee: J Peyper (South Africa).