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Scotland get away with it against their hostile hosts

SOMEBODY once said that Canada is a cold country populated by warm people, but a few Scotland players must have wondered if those terms had been muddled when, on a hot Toronto afternoon, they were given a distinctly frosty reception by their hosts.

Greig Laidlaw is hauled down by Jamie Cudmore and Phil Mack of and Canada. Picture: SNS
Greig Laidlaw is hauled down by Jamie Cudmore and Phil Mack of and Canada. Picture: SNS

Which is not to say that Canada overstepped any lines. Yes, they finished with 14 men after flanker Jebb Sinclair had been red-carded five minutes from the end, but the dismissal can be counted among the softest in international rugby history. Throughout, though, Canada produced a hard and committed game, playing with a sense of collective purpose that rattled Scotland to their studs.

The Scots came out of it with the win they craved, maintaining new coach Vern Cotter's 100% record after two games. But they also finished with an alarmingly long injury list and the knowledge that they will have to tidy and tighten up their game considerably if they are to continue that sequence against Argentina in Cordoba on Friday.

While Scotland's chief failing against the US Eagles in Houston the previous weekend had been their failure to finish things off, their problem in Toronto was in getting anything started in the first place.

They were falling at the first hurdle, not the last. Moves came to grief in their infancy, and there was a powerful impression that panic was sweeping through the ranks.

Captain Greig Laidlaw all but admitted it afterwards. The scrum-half played with customary composure, kicked all his goals and ended with the man of the match award, but he never really managed to impose his will on those around him, despite his appeals for order.

On the eve of the game, Laidlaw had agreed that Scotland, eight places above Canada in the world rankings, should expect to win by 15 to 20 points if they played to their potential. Just as well he added that qualification, for at the end they were grateful to scrape home by two.

Even that margin had the whiff of desperation, created as it was by a penalty reversal after David Ardrey, the American television match official, had spotted Sinclair's forearm smash on Ruaridh Jackson. Had he not been so alert, the likelihood was that James Pritchard, the Canada full-back, would have landed his fifth penalty to give his side a one-point win.

Laidlaw said: "I kept saying to our players, 'Boys just stay calm, just talk to each other, stay in the systems'. A couple of times we fell out the systems which is why we put ourselves under pressure.

"If we kept on giving away silly penalties and giving them field position, we were going to lose. The boys took heed in the end. We clawed our way into the game with penalties."

Cotter's explanation was that Scotland had been right to try play a fast, mobile, heads-up brand of rugby, but that their execution had let them down. Fair enough, but the hatches should have been battened down far earlier. Man for man, Scotland were better in almost every position, but their collective loss of composure made a nonsense of those individual advantages.

Granted, it was always going to be difficult to keep any sort of shape when the loose forwards were dropping like flies. The first to go was Al Strokosch, who suffered a neck injury in the 31st minute, and then the back-row cleared out as Kelly Brown (arm) and Johnnie Beattie (knee) departed within a few minutes of each other in the third quarter.

Kevin Bryce will cherish the cap he received, but the replacement hooker probably never anticipated that he would make his debut on the flank. In fairness, Bryce played a lot of age-grade rugby in that position, so he did not look badly out of place.

Of all the lapses in Scotland's performance, the most worrying -and, potentially, the most costly - was the way the front-line defence was punctured so easily. Canada produced more unexpected line-breaks than you would find in an anthology of experimental poetry, and the best that could be said for Scotland was their scramble defence worked well.

On the one occasion it did not, the Scots were punished with a try. It came in the 24th minute when Ciaran Hearn shot through a gap, and moved the ball on for Jeff Hassler, the wing who now plays for Ospreys, to go over. Scotland did strike back a few minutes later when Grant Gilchrist was sent over from a short lineout for his first Test try, but the overall pattern was one in which Canada played most of the rugby and produced most of the threats.

But most of the luck belonged to Scotland. "I'm gutted for our guys," said Kieran Crowley, the former All Black full-back who heads Canada's coaching team. "They really put it all in. The positive is that we ran a Tier 1 country to two points, and that's a pretty good effort."

To their credit, the Scots acknowledged their good fortune, and a few expressed sympathy for Canada. For many, the game represented the end of a long and arduous season, but it would be pushing it to say their mood was celebratory. The strongest impression was that they were just glad it was all over at last.

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