Scotland 16-24 New Zealand
Improving Scots within whisker of summit
Will Macpherson at Murrayfield
November 15, 2014
Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw had a chance to put Scotland ahead but his penalty drifted inches wide © Getty Images

Shortly before full-time at Murrayfield, tiny San Marino ended a run of 61 straight footballing defeats with an apparently thrilling 0-0 draw against Estonia. There were almost twice as many people in Murrayfield than live in that tiny country as Scotland came within a whisker of achieving something similarly seismic.

Twenty-nine times they'd played the All Blacks before today and never had they registered a win. Before this match there was a small sense - hope rather than expectation, of course - that this could be the moment, that 2014 could be the year and that Saturday, November 15 the day the hoodoo was broken, that Scottish rugby's final frontier could be crossed and a saltire thrust onto Kiwi soil. New Zealand were fielding a side containing 13 changes, Scottish fans had plenty to be optimistic about after swatting Argentina aside seven days earlier and Murrayfield was packed to the rafters. But it wasn't to be. Everest couldn't quite be scaled.

Jonny Gray scrambles for the ball, Scotland v New Zealand, Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, November 15, 2014
Jonny Gray was the star of Scotland's industrious pack © Getty Images

They had their chance. Indeed, a large portion of the 66,004-strong crowd thought they'd taken it, as Greig Laidlaw's 69th-minute penalty drifted inches to the right of the posts at the South End. The groan that followed told a tale of a decade-and-a-half - that's how long the Scots have been without a team to savour - of anguish, of a generation of frustration. To come so close will hurt fans and players in the short term, but even the most curmudgeonly, defeatist and downbeat Scot couldn't help but draw a smile this evening, to raise a glass to an impressive and encouraging performance.

After the disastrous days of Scott Johnson - so full of quips, so short on quality - Vern Cotter is building an impressive, inventive Scotland side under the locum-leadership of Laidlaw. Is there a more underrated player in world rugby than the diminutive half-back? He may not be flashy or rapid or imposing but he's the heartbeat of this fine young side and a dependable citizen. He plays a role akin to those rare cricketers who captain, keep wicket and bat in the top order. Laidlaw leads, he kicks for goal and he plays a pivotal position, marrying Scotland's green back row and exciting back line. That workload told in the 69th minute at Murrayfield as the kick slipped wide. Standing over the ball the Gloucester man looked knackered. Last week's 14-point, try-supplying performance against Argentina and another honest shift today had caught up with him and, with that, went Scotland's opportunity. Four minutes and what felt like a lifetime of Kiwi pressure later, Jeremy Thrush crashed over for the decisive score and Laidlaw's itch became a sore. That the only other error he made all day was a wayward box-kick tells of the influence of his performance.

Behind Laidlaw, Scotland have their first back line to be excited about since the days of Townsend and Tait, Leslie and Logan of the 1999 Championship-winning side. Finn Russell looks the real deal at 10, while you'd hire Alex Dunbar to tackle for your life. A 12th-minute hamstring injury denied the Murrayfield faithful another look at Mark Bennett. The back three is developing a case for being the strongest in the British Isles. Stuart Hogg offers an inventiveness and a twinkle that few Scots have possessed in recent times, Tommy Seymour - as he showed with his try today - has a happy knack for being in the right place at the right time, while Sean Maitland is aggressive and goes hunting for the ball. This group has a chance to show once more that they can be a clinical, try-scoring threat against Tonga next week.

The history books will tell of a result five points more emphatic than England's defeat by New Zealand last weekend but this was a tighter contest

In front of Laidlaw, Cotter has put together an industrious pack. Eyebrows were raised at the absence of stalwarts Kelly Brown and John Barclay from the squad for this series, but the new-look back row has justified Cotter's faith. There's something of the mongrel about Blair Cowan, Adam Ashe is an effective all-rounder and Rob Harley doesn't just share his initials with Richard Hill, he shares his appetite for the dark arts, too. The scrum is a sore spot but not insoluble, after Charlie Faumuina and Joe Moody caused Al Dickinson and Euan Murray a world of bother. In the Gray brothers, Cotter has a fine engine room. 20-year-old Jonny was the star today: nine carries, nine tackles and a pair of off-loads to boot. That he and his brother conspired to pinch three All Black line outs was the eye-catching centrepiece that their industry deserved.

The history books will tell of a result five points more emphatic than England's defeat by New Zealand last weekend but this was a far tighter contest. That Scotland made the Kiwis work as hard as they had to is a credit to Cotter and his charges.

The All Blacks, of course, did what the All Blacks do. We got a look at how deep their resources are: Victor Vito would start at No.8 for every other international side but the Springboks, while Colin Slade - a player almost as underestimated and understated as Laidlaw - showed his adaptability, quality and bottle to close the game out. New Zealand were far from perfect - hell freezes over more often than Dan Carter and Richie McCaw make as many mistakes as they did today - but this was a reminder that whoever is in the All Black cast, they always get what they came for. An hour after full-time, the squad members not involved in the day's play were still out training on the Murrayfield turf. That tells you just about all you need to know.

This was a messy, scrappy, wonderful Test match. Sadly for Scotland, just as it looked as if the stars were aligning, the All Blacks missed the memo once again. In this defeat, though, many green buds emerged on rugby's thistle.

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