Rugby World Cup
Gut-wrenching defeat could be the making of Vern Cotter's Scotland
Tristan Barclay
October 18, 2015
Australia did everything they could to lose

TWICKENHAM, London -- The much talked about southern hemisphere whitewash of the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals has been clinched, but it was not supposed to end this way. That Scotland became the forth northern hemisphere side to exit the competition this weekend was expected, and indeed widely predicted. But few could have foreseen the manner in which it came about.

For all the attacking threat of Australia's backline, it came down to a final, controversial penalty. With Scotland two points in front and edging towards victory, referee Craig Joubert blew for offside and handed the Wallabies' Bernard Foley a kick for what was effectively a place in the last four. Rugby etiquette was thrown out the window as Scottish fans -- and perhaps even some won-over neutrals -- booed at full volume. Foley, however, blocked out the hostile chorus to steal the win.

Regardless, Vern Cotter's men go out of the tournament with their heads held a lot higher than certain other members of the Six Nations. England, dumped out as hosts of their World Cup. Ireland, thrashed by the first truly decent team they came across. And perhaps the less said about France the better after their humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks. Scotland took the fight to the Wallabies and were 60 seconds from winning the bout.

Australia 35-34 Scotland (Australia only)

An early Adam Ashley-Cooper try aside, the first half was all about Scottish momentum. That could have been more to do with Australian complacency than Scottish power, but the Dark Blues went into the half-time break a point in front. They were down three-to-one in the try count, but Foley's inability to kick conversions from the touchline, coupled with Scotland's knack of scoring whenever in enemy territory, meant Scottish fans were dreaming of victory longer than they might have expected.

That bubble looked as though it would burst in the second half. Almost as soon as Joubert sounded his whistle for the restart, Scotland were down to 14 men. Sean Maitland was spotted by the TMO making a deliberate knock on and, with the wing in the bin, Drew Mitchell would fly over for his second try of the afternoon. The floodgates were about to open, weren't they?

Not quite. In fact, Scotland managed to keep within touching distance of their illustrious opponents, until a surprise Mark Bennett intercept try saw them take a stunning two-point lead entering the final five minutes. Twickenham erupted, moments after the heavens had opened. With the rain teeming down and time running out, it looked as though England's famous old home ground was about to witness the most famous Scottish World Cup victory ever, and an upset to rival Japan's victory over South Africa earlier in the tournament. Alas, it would end in pain in the rain.

© Chris Lee/World Rugby via Getty Images

How can northern hemisphere teams compete?

Speaking in his postmatch media conference, the usually inscrutable Cotter displayed a hint of emotion as he spoke of Scotland's heartbreak. "I feel for these guys," he said. "It's a tough day. I'm very proud of them, not only as men but as rugby players."

Skipper Greig Laidlaw was disappointed but defiant, insisting his side were improving. "It's a pretty upset dressing room as you can imagine," he added. "We've made great strides since the Six Nations and we're one kick away from being in the semifinals of the World Cup. We'll move forward but we need to get over the disappointment first."

While nothing should be taken away from the Scotland performance, there were still flickers of the bad old days of this year's Six Nations, where defeats to France, Wales and especially Italy all could have been avoided with some nerve in the final quarter. Even a World Cup warm-up game against France in Paris saw a familiar tale of Scottish endeavour leading to a narrow defeat.

And while against Australia they appeared to break the nasty habit of starting slowly, engendered during the pool stage of this World Cup, they failed to close out the game at the other end.

Joubert's penalty award might have been arguable, but it came from a lost lineout on the Scottish throw. There was always the haunting thought that an Australian victory was inevitable, no matter how close the scoreline became.

What Scotland have shown is that they have the ambition to take on the likes of Australia. They must harness that team spirit as they continue to build a team around the talented youngsters Finn Russell, Jonny Gray, Stuart Hogg and Bennett. This could yet be the dawning of a new era for Scotland. They certainly wouldn't miss these gut-wrenching endings if that is to prove the case.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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