Scotland scupper quarter-final spot
THE trouble with the scenarios open to Scotland if they wish to preserve their record of qualifying for the quarter-finals in every World Cup is that each one appears as unlikely as the next. Indeed the most bullish person about the Scots' chances of defeating England in the sides' concluding Pool B match on Saturday - and they will probably have to do it by eight or more points to progress - was the Argentina No 8, Juan Fernandez Lobbe.
"I believe anyone can beat anyone in this World Cup," said the former Sale Sharks forward. "The passion that Scotland have and the way they play, it's going to be a very interesting match against England."
It is fair to say that none of the personnel in the three teams fighting out the pool's two qualifying places would volunteer Georgia - who face the Pumas on Sunday - among the "anyone" of whom Lobbe spoke. The common prediction is that Argentina will take at least a win from that match and perhaps a bonus to move on to 14 or 15 match points - four or five more than Scotland possess after they coughed up a six-point lead in the last eight minutes in Wellington yesterday.
The schedule of the weekend's matches gives Argentina an unfair advantage; they will know what they have to do. Scotland will be obliged to shoot for a win over England by a margin they last achieved 25 years ago - or win by scoring at least four tries, which is even less conceivable.
The incentive is magnificent - if results pan out a certain way, Scotland could top the pool to meet France in the quarters and send England home "tae think again"; the odds against it, however, are very long and the liveliest observation the Scottish full-back Chris Paterson could manage was that "Scotland-England matches are a wee bit different so you never know" but he also warned: "England are improving game on game, and they like to do that at World Cups."
Paterson was among those culpable in the build-up to Lucas Amorosino's crucial try for Argentina, described by the Scotland head coach Andy Robinson as "30 seconds of madness". The score came in the 73rd minute, immediately after Dan Parks had squirted over a dropped goal from a position deep in the 22 created by the replacement Scotland fly-half's superb penalty kick to touch.
Scotland were unable to catch the restart, they committed a penalty offence at a ruck and Argentina used the advantage to run to the right. A couple of Scots flew out of the defensive line, allowing Felipe Contepomi and Marcelo Bosch to feed the replacement wing Amorosino, and he stepped twice off his right foot in a thrilling, weaving run past Paterson's missed tackle and the flailing lunges of Mike Blair, Jim Hamilton and Max Evans.
And by sliding a few metres infield with his dive, Amorosino - late of Leicester, now of Montpellier - narrowed the angle for Contepomi's conversion. The captain who had been brave to play with bruised ribs suffered in the Pumas' opening 13-9 defeat to England made no mistake. The Scots had time to respond, and they were helped when a less accurate Parks touchfinder was fumbled over the touchline by none other than Amorosino (a clue perhaps to what he is doing on the bench given his attacking form at the World Cup).
Working infield to a ruck from Hamilton's catch, they lobbed the ball to Parks too far to the left of the posts and he was hurried into a missed drop off his wrong, left foot by Contepomi rushing forward. The Pumas skipper had gambled against being caught offside - and admitted later that he thought he was - although replays suggested Blair's hands were on the ball at the ruck before Contepomi moved.
Robinson thought there should have been a whistle and though Contepomi reasoned that the English referee Wayne Barnes had his back to him, the assistant referees were there to spot any offence. Robinson said with a fixed smile: "Wayne is a quality referee. I had a chat with him afterwards and complimented him on his game."
Hundreds of Argentina's supporters sang songs and banged drums for two hours outside the Pumas' city centre hotel before the team departed for the stadium. But to misquote the old song, someone left the "Cake Tin" out in the rain, and a sustained downpour affected both the supporters' vivacity and the Scots' intent to play at a high tempo.
Evans had no trouble beating a man but rarely had team-mates on his wavelength; Richie Gray did well stealing line-outs but was substituted on the hour. The Pumas props, Rodrigo Roncero and Juan Vergallo, forced penalties at the breakdown before both Roncero and Lobbe had to depart injured - the latter may have knee ligament damage and is unlikely to face Georgia.
Contepomi had taken painkillers and an injection of dextrose beforehand - "it has an effect on the superficial nerves," the inside centre and qualified doctor explained - and he wore under his jersey two six-inch-long, oval-shaped pads that were checked twice by Barnes before kick-off as giving legitimate protection. Scotland's inability to make a physical impression on Contepomi was another miscalculation.
Scotland were 6-3 up at half-time, and reached 12-6 with Parks' successful drop. Contepomi had kicked two penalties and missed two while Martin Rodriguez missed one; and there was a penalty apiece for Paterson and fly-half Ruaridh Jackson, a miss by Paterson and a drop by Jackson. They added up to a toehold that threatened Argentina with elimination with a match to spare but Amorosino proved easily the most sure-footed.