LEEDS: Scotland were given a scare at Elland Road as the US beat them down and led them at half-time, but were ultimately clear 39-16 winners in this Pool B match.
It was a rousing afternoon and showed that although England may have been brutally beaten the night before, the World Cup continues to turn on its axis. Rugby’s gospel is spreading to unconquered lands. There were more than 33,521 fans here – more than a regular crowd for modern-day Leeds United – in a stadium that has always honoured Don Revie ahead of Clive Woodward.
But it was turned into a mini Murrayfield away from home. The faithful Celts sported kilts in the early autumn sun, sang Flower of Scotland with gusto waved Saltires.
Even some bagpipes managed to sneak in, breaking a tournament ban on their infernal wind. America also had significant support, if their anthem was slightly less loudly rendered.
Scotland changed 10 of the personnel that hosed Japan 45-10 in midweek. It underlined the strength of depth among the first tier nations – even one that lost all its Six Nations matches – whereas America only made the one, with Phil Thiel replacing Zach Fenoglio
Happily one of the Scots not to be rested was Finn Russell, the 23-year-old fly-half who fizzes passes with intuition and devil.
But there was little of Scottish precision on display in the first half. Their execution was terrible at times, and who could say that America did not deserve their 13-6 lead as they went off at the break.
America started brightly with their fly-half AJ MacGinty settling the nerves with the first score, firing his penalty kick high and true.
Scotland’s fullback Stuart Hogg, reliable under the high ball, made it 3-3. Finn, from closer, made it 6-3, and Scotland were in the lead.
But it was not to last. The US, whose lineout was dire in the opening skirmishes, finally made the set-piece work for them. They moved the ball back inside, Scotland missed a few tackles, and amid a pile of bodies, stocky prop Titi Lamositele crossed the line. MacGinty converted.
America were direct and strong if not greatly creative. Scotland should have made their superiority tell but they fluffed their lines a number of times, most obviously when a super run by Hogg fizzled out when his pass out to the jet-heeled Tim Visser was probably a fraction delayed and certainly too low. Visser dropped the ball.
Oh dear, handling errors were costing Scotland dear. The US were improving as the half progressed and could have scored another try but Hayden Smith lost the ball in contact, squandering the work of 15 phases of of incursion. MacGinty scored three more from in front of the posts with the last act of the half. Finely balanced. Nervy moments.
With apologies to America, Scotland should never have been too close to flunking this test. They held a 100 per cent record in their four previous meetings, scoring 181 points to America’s 50.
And, lo and behold, in the opening two minutes of the second half, the world order was restored. Quick line-out ball put them on the front foot. Russell was now pulling the strings sweetly. Hogg found Visser outside him and the winger turned on the gas to touch down in the corner. Scotland were suddenly within two points of the Americans.
Russell was again the puppeteer minutes later, his neat inside ball sending wing Sean Maitland over unchallenged. Russell’s simple conversion made it 18-13.
Now Scotland were truly up and running, like night and day after that dismal first-half performance. A third Scottish try followed. Their forwards took control. They poured forward from the line-out and WP Nel, an important front-row replacement along with Alasdair Dickinson, stretched out to the base of the post.
Greig Laidlaw, who spent the first-half warming the bench, converted. He was man of the match in midweek and his influence, barking instructions at the ruck, was another significant facet of Scotland’s revival.
With 25 minutes remaining, Scotland, under the hammer earlier in the afternoon, were suddenly closing in on a fourth try and the bonus point that would bring. It was delivered by Matt Scott, who side-step took him across. Laidlaw did the rest.
The USA were still dangerous with ball in hand, but they only managed one score in the second half, MacGinty’s penalty after Josh Strauss handled on the ball. Scotland defence was resolute.
They scored a fifth try, another replacement, Duncan Weir, rounding off what was finally a minor rout.
Scotland play South Africa next before, what many expect will the contest that will settle whether they make it out of the group, against Samoa in Newcastle on October 10.