Rugby World Cup: Scotland broken as south destroys north
Heroics from Scotland and Wales are not enough to stop the southern hemisphere giants in epic quarter finals
Quarter-final weekend in the Rugby World Cup served up a sensational mix of drama, dexterity and damned bad luck but the outcome is that no northern hemisphere nation is in the semi-final.
It's the first time in the 28-year history of the tournament that the semi-finalists all hail from the southern hemisphere, and while no one would deny the right of New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina to be in the last four, Scotland woke this morning wondering might have been.
Four years ago in New Zealand, the Scots failed to make it out of the group stage for the first time and in this season's Six Nations they finished last with five defeats. But coach Vern Cotter, their taciturn New Zealand coach, has worked wonders with the Scots in the last six months and they almost pulled off an extraordinary feat in beating Australia.
The second favourites, who have beaten England and Wales in successive weekends, were expected to make short work of the Scots, and they began yesterday's quarter-final in blistering fashion, running in their first try through Adam Ashley-Cooper in the right-hand corner.
But the Scots were in no mood to roll over and, in one of the great World Cup encounters, scored three tries of their own. The last, an interception try by Mark Bennett seven minutes from time, looked to have secured the Scots a semi-final place for the first time since 1991.
But with barely a minute left on the clock, referee Craig Joubert controversially penalised Scotland for a deliberate offside, even though TV replays suggested the ball had come off an Australian. Wallaby fly-half Bernard Foley - who had suffered an indifferent day with his place-kicking - kept his cool to kick the three points and secure his side a 35-34 victory.
"I don't know if I've got ice-cool nerves, I'd rather not be kicking them right at the death," reflected Foley. "There is a lot of character in this side. Even when we were behind with five minutes to go, we knew we had a chance."
Social media reacted with fury to Joubert's decision to award the last-minute penalty, reports the Daily Telegraph, and he did his cause no favours by sprinting from the field seconds after blowing the final whistle. But the Scotland players were more philosophical with scrum-half and captain Greig Laidlaw, admitting: "It's something we could have controlled from the line-out [but] it's the toughest defeat I've ever had to take."
Wales showed similar courage against South Africa in their quarter-final on Saturday, but a try on 75 minutes from Springboks captain Fourie du Preez proved decisive as the Welsh went down 23-19. Wales' fly-half Dan Biggar scored 14 points and created the opening for Gareth Davies to score his fifth try of the tournament, but it wasn't quite enough against a South African side who meet New Zealand next Saturday at Twickenham.
The All Blacks will be favourites to progress to the final after their nine-try demolition of France in Cardiff. The French, who had upset the Kiwis in two previous World Cups, were blown apart in a 62-13 defeat, the most points they have ever conceded in an international. New Zealand were sublime. Combining pace with power and precision they destroyed French pretensions of being a major rugby power.
Australia's reward for beating Scotland is a clash with Argentina next Sunday. The South Americans brushed aside the challenge of Ireland, who were tipped by many as the northern hemisphere side with the best chance of making the final. But the Pumas started well and raced to a 17-0 lead thanks to slick tries from Matias Moroni and Juan Imhoff. Luke Fitzgerald's try reduced the deficit to 20-10 at the break, and a score from flanker Jordi Murphy gave Irish fans hope of a stirring comeback, but the Argentines came strong in the final quartet with tries from Joaquin Tuculet and a second for the outstanding Imhoff as they ran out 43-20 winners.