Two words normally guaranteed to induce winces of despair from a Scottish sports fan are “gallant defeat”.
Well, here was another one but, rather than the usual pangs of empty desolation that come in the immediate aftermath of the many heroic failures witnessed down the years, there was a different feel to this one. The overwhelming sense in the minutes and hours which followed this Test match was of an outpouring of extreme pride in the way this Scotland team performed against the world’s undisputed best team.
Incredible occasion, from the moving moment Doddie Weir presented the match ball, electric atmosphere, absorbing high-quality game and an individual performance from Stuart Hogg which, at times, took the breath away.
All that was missing was the perfect finish as Hogg was denied the score-levelling try which, for an exhilaratingly fleeting moment, seemed to be on as he hared down the left, only to be brilliantly tackled by the supreme Beauden Barrett and despairingly saw his attempted offload drift forward.
For all the upswing in confidence and belief in this team which has grown in recent years there was still a sense of trepidation ahead of the evening kick-off. Sure, a feeling of slighted grievance at some of the more bullish predictions coming from Kiwi commentators such as Zinzan Brooke who had foreseen a “60-point humbling” for the home team but also a creeping concern that he may not be far wrong.
The All Blacks had picked their strongest available team, Scotland were depleted in the front row and missing other key first-choice contenders. Reasons to fearful had also been thrown up by the sloppiness which marred the previous weekend’s 44-38 Samoa in which five tries had been shipped.
Coach Gregor Townsend’s prediction that his side would make the necessary tweaks and the capacity crowd would see a different Scotland against the world champions was validated. As much as the intensity and skill which the home side played with for large parts of the game it was the character which warmed the heart.
More injury blows were taken as Hamish Watson, Zander Fagerson, Luke Hamilton and Alex Dunbar were all forced off. Hooker Stuart McInally had to revert to his old back-row position and, while the scrum creaked it didn’t fold. Across the pitch the players shrugged off setbacks and continued to go at the All Blacks with belligerence and brio.
A defeat is a defeat and mistakes were made. This has to be expected at the start of Townsend’s grand plan to make Scotland the fastest-tempo Test team in the world but it is a noble objective which the rugby public can buy into.
A low scoring but compelling first half ended 3-3, which fairly reflected the game but could have been different if the excellent Finn Russell hadn’t narrowly missed one penalty and gone to touch with another.
When New Zealand finally clicked to strike a double blow through hooker Codie Taylor and full-back Damien McKenzie there were worries that the floodgates might open.
When Jonny Gray showed great strength to get over the line for the try Scotland’s efforts so deserved the decibel levels went up again. This was a proper rugby crowd and they were lapping up every second. No Mexican Waves needed this weekend.
The All Blacks scored another but, again, they were being pushed to produce their absolute best to breach the Scots. The third try was the pick as Sonny Bill Williams’ brilliant offload and Damien McKenzie’s perfect angle put Barrett in for a try that no defence in the world could possibly have dealt with.
The Scots, though, hit back with some genius of their own. Again Hogg was at the heart, his perfectly weighted grubber seized on with lightning hands by Tommy Seymour to send Huw Jones in for yet another try in what has been a sensational start to the centre’s Test career.
Hogg couldn’t quite complete the fairytale but, Scotland come away with vast amounts of credit and reason for further optimism when Australia arrive this weekend.