As Blair Kinghorn stood over the ball, the clock ticking towards 80 minutes, the game resting in the palm of his hand and on the instep of his right boot, so many minds inside a bewitched Murrayfield drifted to France. They flitted to Finn Russell and what the jilted play-maker would have done, eyeing up the same kick. They considered Russell’s propensity not just to nail the big moments, but to own them, and they pondered, some of them aloud, whether Kinghorn had the same mettle. The kick was not just a match-decider, rightly or wrongly, it became Scotland’s fly-half furore in microcosm.
Scottish rugby tends to revel in uproar, but we haven’t seen the kind of thermonuclear reaction ignited by Russell’s omission from the autumn squad for quite some time. It dominated the preamble and will dominate the post-mortem.
Kinghorn did plenty good against the Wallabies on Saturday. Some very good. He had a lovely soft hand in Ollie Smith’s score, and save Beauden Barrett, it is hard to think of an international ten with the sharp vision, blistering top-end speed and footballing skill to score the try he did.
Seizing upon a bobbling ball after it was dislodged from an Australian paw, Kinghorn hacked away into yards of unguarded prairie. He was too fast for the cover, and too precise with the boot to allow anyone to beat him to the prize. It was a sixty-yard dash punctuated by two beautifully weighted hacks and it brought Murrayfield to a thunderous crescendo. People were thinking about Russell in that moment, too. Only they were thinking that for all his brilliance, the Racing man would not have the gas to score such a try.
We’ll be speaking about Kinghorn and Russell for some time yet. Months, probably, as the World Cup chatter intensifies and Test matches are won and lost.
There were errors too, of course. Kinghorn slashed at his first conversion attempt. The absence of an elite marksmen to match Greig Laidlaw continues to gnaw at Scotland. Kinghorn’s kicking from hand was a little ropey. He spurned a second-half overlap with a heavy-handed parabola that was too high for Jamie Ritchie and forward in any case. Then – and this is what everyone will talk about and everyone will remember – he dragged his colossal shot wide. With that, went the game.
We’ll be speaking about Kinghorn and Russell for some time yet. Months, probably, as the World Cup chatter intensifies and Test matches are won and lost. On some level, and at least today, this is an asinine debate, since Russell could never have played in an out-of-window international. His absence was not the reason Scotland lost.
No, bereft of Russell, Scotland returned instead to a familiar routine of self-flagellation. Errors compounded errors. Penalty followed dozy penalty. Luke Pearce did them three times for maddening line-out infringements. Pearce could – possibly should – have shown red instead of yellow to Glen Young for a monster clear-out to the head of Tate McDermott.
On first viewing, from the stand, it looked like an incredible clean. On the television replays, it looked like a sending off. Young, belting along at full tilt, made an immense effort to support a line-break. He is 6ft 6 ins tall. McDermott is not. As low as he got, as much as he tried to wrap his arms, he was never going to be in a position to remove the jackaling scrum-half legally. Yet galloping flat-out, he was never going to be able to avoid the collision either.
Townsend voiced his worries about the jackal and its place in the sport afterwards, not as a slighted coach angered by Pearce’s call, but as a concerned man of rugby. As we watch ACLs explode and brains rattle, his words are compelling.
“That’s the risk and reward of the game,” said Townsend. “I personally believe the jackal should be taken out. Too many injuries on the jackal. Too much risk on where you take someone out.
“We have to win races to win contact, we’re encouraging players to sprint to win that race because if you don’t, you’re not going to be able to move that jackaler. If someone is sprinting, he’s not going to slow down a yard before the ruck in enough time.
“We said to Glen, ‘it’s a world-class bit of play or a yellow card’. There’s nothing you can change about it, unless you decide not to go to the ruck and let the player win the ball. I’m not saying [the decision to sin-bin Young] is right or wrong but personally think we need to get the jackal out.”
Soon after, Ollie Smith and Duhan van der Merwe left a tame Bernard Foley penalty to each other and instead of punishing the fly-half for his undercooked punt, they let it bounce into touch. From the line-out, Nic White bought a clever penalty from Hamish Watson at the maul. Townsend was unhappy at the call, and at how Scotland’s own maul did not yield more rewards when trundling towards the Australian line before hitting the deck.
Their failure to show the streetsmarts to keep their penalty count down and ruthlessness to turn plumb red-zone ball into tries proved their undoing.
Scotland blew glorious opportunities to score more tries in each half, to put clear blue water between themselves in the Wallabies in a game that was so evenly contested. Sione Tuipulotu, one of Townsend’s best players on the day, dropped the ball with the line at his mercy. The pack were held up on the paint when there was a walk-in try on offer had they spun it. Grant Gilchrist coughed one up when he looked certain to crash over, though the try would have been scrubbed off for Young’s clear-out in the lead-up. They didn’t get enough ball to Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham, their greatest strike runners, who made a combined total of just eight carries. They turned down kickable penalties in search of greater rewards. They lost a line-out in the Australian 22 with the pressure on. The sloppiness at the set-piece was a recurring theme.
So much of this was self-inflicted and so much of it avoidable. Kinghorn’s surging try made it 15-6, a two-score lead with 25 minutes left. They were pegged back when Young was in the bin and James Slipper went over, and usurped when Watson was penalised and Foley struck. There were echoes of Santiago del Estero and the third Test against Argentina, when Scotland let a 15-point slip through their fingers in the last throes. Their failure to show the streetsmarts to keep their penalty count down and ruthlessness to turn plumb red-zone ball into tries proved their undoing.
There were positive things in that game as well, no doubt. Smith was a major one. In for Stuart Hogg at full-back, the 21-year-old does not want for belief. Nor does he lack talent. It’s a thing to behold, the fearlessness of a young player determined to back his skills. You had to admire Smith’s cojones, eleven minutes into his first home start and second cap when, with two men outside them, including the mighty Van der Merwe, he chose to keep the ball himself, bamboozle two covering defenders, and plunge home from 15m out.
Resilience was another point in Scotland’s favour. They were not cowed by the natural momentum swings of a top-level Test match. They rallied sufficiently when Australia took the lead on half-time, and again late in the game, to give themselves a good shot at winning at the last. Though the breakdown was generally a mess, with sky-high penalty counts, their dogs turned Australia over four times in the Scottish 22. Ritchie led the way on a fine first outing as captain.
But come the endgame, it was the kick on everyone’s lips. The dejection etched on Kinghorn’s face. The anguish around a Murrayfield that had been strangely tepid for long spells. Not a gimme by any means, but a goal you expect your international kicker to slot.
“He had an outstanding game and he’s missed one kick. We had opportunities to win the game before that so it shouldn’t have come down it,” Ritchie said.
“He’s quite down,” Townsend went on. “The technical side is the key thing. You can’t think about a kick that doesn’t go over in the last minute any differently than one that doesn’t go over in the first minute or in training.
“That’s easy to say, but next time, what technical thing do you need to work on? For him it is going to hurt. That’s sport, the width of a post decides whether you win or lose sometimes.”
A game of inches. While Kinghorn stepped up at Murrayfield, Russell was dazzling again in the Top 14. Brive, this time. Twenty-three points from the tee to follow the 18 against Montpellier, including two late penalties from distance, and three try assists. The Townsend-Russell sideshow will rumble on a long while yet. With Vern Cotter and Fiji in town next weekend, Scotland need to motor again.