Scotland centre Sean Lamont marked the 100th cap for his country by firing a warning to their World Cup rivals to underestimate them at their peril.
Lamont reached his milestone as a second-half substitute in the nailbiting 36-33 win over Samoa at St James’ Park which earned the Scots a quarter-final clash with Australia at Twickenham on Sunday.
And despite the nerve-shredding finale to his side’s Group B campaign, Lamont believes Scotland have never been better equipped to seize the initiative and march even further into the tournament.
“This is by far the best Scotland team I’ve been involved with Wain my 11 years – not just in the talent but the way the boys fight for each other.
“We’ve got a lot of belief and the general team spirit is brilliant. We can go a long way if we continue to show that level of belief and confidence. We are ready and of course we will be the underdogs, but Scotland relish being the underdogs.”
Scotland’s struggle to assert themselves in the early stages of their Group B pool matches threatened to cost them dear as they trailed the already-eliminated Samoans 26-23 after a high-octane first half.
But the canny boot of Greig Laidlaw once again saved the day with the scrum-half scoring 26 of Scotland’s points, including, fittingly, the last of three tries which finally put the game beyond their plucky opponents.
Lamont, who also won his first Scotland cap against Samoa in 2004, said his personal achievement paled into insignificance compared to his country’s march into the last eight.
“It’s a great feeling to win 100 caps but I didn’t really care if I got on the field – it was all about Scotland winning and that was my main focus.
“I’m really happy to have got it and it’s a big milestone for me, but during my time in the team I have realised it is about the team first and the individual second, and that’s the kind of squad we are.”
Scotland coach Vern Cotter had made seven changes from the side beaten by South Africa, including the reintroduction of stand-off Finn Russell, who had recovered from an ankle knock. So it will have come as a source of some frustration for Cotter that, just as in each of their previous three Group B fixtures, a sluggish start threatened to undermine an otherwise resolute team performance.
And it is something Russell himself concedes his side still need to address.
“It’s disappointing not to have the first half we wanted again, but we have to give credit to Samoa who were outstanding, and we knew what we had to go out and do in the second half.
“We can take some positives out of the game – we were outstanding at the set-pieces – but we also know there are some things we need to improve. We know what we have to do and from now it is knockout rugby and that’s all that matters.”
Laidlaw revealed that Cotter had to deliver calming words as their World Cup quarter-final hopes were left hanging in the balance as the Pacific Islanders cut through their shambolic defence at will during the first half.
Samoa looked like they would score every time they went forward and claimed a narrow lead at the break after Tusi Pisi, Manu Leiataua and Reynold Lee-Lo crossed over, with Tommy Seymour and John Hardie responding for Cotter’s team.
Defeat would have handed the initiative to Japan but the Kiwi managed to settle his team down at the break.
Laidlaw, who scored a decisive touchdown ten minutes from time to render a last-gasp Motu Matu’u score meaningless, said: “It’s a great feeling to be in the last eight. For me personally, to lead Scotland into the quarters is the highlight of my career.
“At times we were down in the game but it was credit to Vern and the coaches for the way they kept us calm at half-time.
“We got the scrum at the end and I turned to the boys and told them I wanted to take it if they would back me. The forwards knew they had them under pressure so we took the scrum and I managed to score off the back of it.”
It took an hour for the Scots to finally nudge themselves in front and Laidlaw added: “We were not worried.
“Obviously we hadn’t planned to be behind for so long. We were starved of the ball for a lot of the first half and as a defence, we just got too tight and they exposed us round the edges.
“But we stayed calm and that’s credit to Vern and the coaches. We had a clear game plan and we just felt if we executed it we would win the game.
“That was the message at half-time – don’t panic and you’ll grind them down.”
The St James’ Park clash also saw lock Richie Gray reach his half-century and Laidlaw believes the his tight-knit squad will only improve as they march south to London.
He said: “We missed out on the quarters four years ago so it was a great feeling back in the dressing-room.
“It was a special day. Richie got his 50th cap and Sean his 100th. He believes that in his 100 caps this is the best squad in terms of camaraderie we have ever had. That goes a long way and it showed.”
Cotter admits the Samoans, who will now have to qualify for the 2019 World Cup after missing out on third place in Pool B, caught his side by surprise with their rampant display.
But he praised his players for digging deep to get the job done.
He said: “I’m really proud of the boys and the way they played, they were down at half-time but showed the character and spirit to come back. It showed just how much it means to them and I’m really happy for the group as they worked so hard to get there.
“That is phase one and we need to move to phase two, which is the knock-outs, but I think there were some pretty good things out there.
“We took the scrum at the end and it paid off with Greig’s try and that showed the confidence and spirit we have from this group.
“We saw things from Samoa which we hadn’t seen from them so far and they were impressive. But we adapted and got through in the end.”