EDINBURGH (AFP) – All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had no regrets about risking defeat against Scotland by fielding an experimental young side at Murrayfield, insisting that the close call of a contest that ended in a 24-16 victory for the reigning world champions was “a perfect game for us”.
New Zealand have never lost to Scotland but the hosts were scenting an historic victory as they entered the final 10 minutes just 17-16 down against an All Black side featuring 13 changes in personnel from the XV that started the 24-21 win against England at Twickenham seven days previously.
It took a 74th minute try from Hurricanes lock Jeremy Thrush and a conversion by Colin Slade, who started on the right wing but switched to the familiar realm of fly-half after the 56th minute substitution of Dan Carter, to make victory secure against a spirited Scotland side.
It was the first time in 23 years that Scotland had finished within 10 points of the All Blacks, since a 13-6 defeat in the third-place play-off match in Cardiff at the 1991 Rugby World Cup.
“It was the perfect game for us,” said Hansen. “We knew the strength of Scotland and what they were going to bring. They’re an up and coming side.
“For this tour, we wanted to give all the young guys at least two opportunities. The USA game (a 74-6 win in Chicago on November 1) was the first one and this one was a big step up.
“We knew that and we couldn’t have asked for a better game because the players had to earn the right to win it. They had to stay mentally strong. They got under a lot of pressure at times and came through it very well, I thought.
“It was the same for the Scotland boys. The longer the game went, and the more they felt they like were going to win, the pressure started to creep into their game as well.
“Pressure’s a funny thing. The young guys have got to learn to cope with it.”
Even the older All Blacks buckled at times. Carter missed two kicks at goal, but then landed three penalties, in his first international start for twelve months.
Captain Richie McCaw, playing his 136th game for New Zealand but his first at blindside flanker, gifted an interception try to Scotland winger Tommy Seymour.
“There were a lot of mistakes and a lot of parts we’ll have to go away and improve on,” said McCaw.
“We were against a team that was willing today and they made it tough for us. But towards the end, when it really mattered, we managed to hang together and believe in what we were doing and get the try we needed.
“The key was not to panic and believe in what we were doing. The way we scored that try towards the end, it was probably the best patch of rugby we played. To do that when it counts is important.”
No 8 Victor Vito, who scored the opening try for the All Blacks, suffered a torn calf muscle and looks certain to miss his country’s final tour match against Wales in New Zealand next Saturday.
However, centre Conrad Smith is due to re-join the squad in the Welsh capital on Sunday after returning home last week for unspecified reasons.
Scotland finish their November series against Tonga in Kilmarnock next Saturday and their Kiwi coach Vern Cotter was justifiably proud of his team’s efforts against the reigning – if far from full strength – world champions.
“It was a great effort,” said Cotter. “I feel for the players. They weren’t far away.
“I always knew this game was going to give us something and I think it gave us a lot of positive things.
“One thing you can be sure of is that there’s character in there and that’s very important.”