Scotland used forward-breaking quickness and natural power to boss a fairly dour game against the USA Eagles in Houston. The Scots won by a comfortable 24-6 scoreline, ensuring head coach Vern Cotter's first win.
For Cotter, the game was important in announcing his long-awaited arrival as the man who can revolutionize Scottish Rugby Union internationally. While he'll have been pleased to begin with a victory, Cotter won't be fooling himself about the scale of the job in front of him.
The match was played in front of a healthy crowd at Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium. The home fans were only treated to a pair of penalty kicks from Chris Wyles.
Yet the atmosphere remained buoyant, even if the action on the field didn't always merit it.
Suffocating heat played its part in stifling the flow of the play throughout the game. The conditions were a factor Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw was quick to highlight after the match, per Tom Dart of The Guardian: "That was tough, we’re not used to playing in heat like this. It was a dry night but the ball was slippy.”
The sluggish pace of the game was something USA Coach Mike Tolkin noted with disappointment in the aftermath, again per Dart:
I think the game tonight never really picked up any momentum, certainly not from our side but I think in general it was a very stop-start affair.
First half of the game we were too aggressive where we shouldn’t have been and got stupid penalties early on. We weren’t aggressive where we needed to be, and that was around the fringes of the ruck and off the defensive line, and overall we didn’t do a good enough job holding on to the ball.
The bottom line is we have to win those games because we had opportunities, I think we could have turned the momentum. Scotland said they were struggling with the heat. At times when we got some momentum inside their 22 they were breathing hard and they were struggling. More than just ‘hey we want to win those games and maybe we can’, we have to do the things to win it. Because we’re in positions to do it, and now we have to execute.
The Scots may have struggled with the temperature in Texas, but their overall power was enough to establish command early. In particular, winger Tim Visser impressed with several raiding bursts down the left.
His talent for sudden breaks gave the Scots a quick-strike ability the Eagles couldn't match. Visser was a consistent menace in Texas, and soon found enough space to really punish Tolkin's squad.
The Edinburgh Rugby ace helped himself to the game's first try. But it was Laidlaw who iced the game after ploughing over from short range.
The skipper had earlier booted a penalty for the game's first points, having already missed one kick. But the pattern of Scotland's advantage was clear, even if they didn't always maximize their superiority.
Although they remained in charge throughout, Scotland's overall performance wasn't exactly impressive. Efficiency with the ball was a real problem, as the Scottish Daily Record noted: "When it mattered, the Scots bossed the set-piece, but they butchered as many chances as they took and lost too many promising positions to handling mistakes."
Up 17-3 at the half, Cotter's team wasted the chance to show some real flair and confidence after the break, as Iain Morrison, writing for The Scotsman, pointed out:
The second half was an unholy mess with neither side was able to hold onto the ball long enough to exert any pressure on the opposition. Scotland had the better of what meagre chances were created but they turned over two set pieces, a scrum and a lineout inside the Eagles’ red zone. Wyles kicked his second penalty on 50 minutes to drag his side to within eleven points of the Scots but that was as close as they got and the entire third quarter of the match was pointless, in more ways than one.
Basic errors like the ones they showed in Houston are something Cotter is anxious to eradicate from Scotland's game, according to Dart: “We’ll come back to basics. We want to do the simple things well."
However, he will have been impressed with the scoring potential of players like Visser and full-back Stuart Hogg. With those two in the ranks, Cotter's team has the ammunition to trouble tougher opponents than the plucky Eagles squad they faced in Houston.
Hogg, along with Visser's fellow winger Sean Maitland, caused the Eagles consistent problems, according to the Scottish Daily Record. However, natural firepower aside, the Scots need to show more during Cotter's next games in charge.
Specifically, they need to match their forward potential with the calm authority to make it count. There were many more points to be had in Houston, but Cotter's group couldn't take them.
They won't be able to make those sort of mistakes when they battle South Africa on June 28th. Cotter must use his next two summer tour matches, against Canada and Argentina, to refine his team's forward verve.
As for the Eagles, Tolkin's team is currently long on will and guts, but painfully short of know-how. The more subtlety they can add to their game, the quicker the Eagles will show real improvement.