Finally, Scotland’s World Cup campaign has finally gained momentum. This bonus point victory over Tonga in Nice breathed new life into the tournament for Gregor Townsend’s side.
After a two-week break due to the defeat to South Africa, Scotland were calm and clinical, scoring seven tries and ultimately winning comfortably.
They are now in the guts of this group stage and face a six-day turnaround before facing Romania in Lille next Saturday evening.
There will be at least five more points to come before all roads then lead to Paris and the prospect of what could be a winner-takes-all clash with Ireland.
No one doubts the enormity of that challenge. Based on what Ireland showed in their thumping win over the Springboks last weekend, it still looks like a tall order for Scotland.
But all they can do is stay in contention and at least give themselves a chance heading into the showdown with the Irish at the Stade de France on October 7.
Scotland took care of business yesterday and won with minimal fuss. That’s all that can be asked of them in this most devilishly tight and difficult of Pool B.
You almost need a math degree to crunch all the numbers and work out the various permutations that could split Scotland, South Africa and Ireland in the final shake-up.
But five points against Tonga were a necessity and what will encourage Townsend was the fact that Finn Russell and the Scotland backline finally clicked into gear.
Seven tries scored by seven different players indicated a team was finally starting to find some fluidity in this tournament.
After barely firing a shot at the Boks a fortnight ago, Russell had far more influence here at the Stade de Nice.
His passing range was excellent, but what also stood out was his out-of-hand kick. There were a few sharp kicks, including a 50-22, that helped Scotland keep their heel firmly pressed to Tonga’s throat.
Duhan van der Merwe was much more prominent than against South Africa, as was winger Kyle Steyn, with both players scoring a try each.
The only real sour note from a Scottish perspective was captain Jamie Ritchie’s failure to gain a HIA after a ridiculously high shot from Tongan winger Afusipa Taumaepeau. More about that later.
Ritchie would likely have been rested and rotated against Romania next weekend, but a failed HIA means he can’t play at least now due to the 12-day stand-down period.
But nevertheless, seven tries and five points represented a solid night’s work for Townsend and his players as they now prepare to leave the French Riviera and head north to Lille.
After watching Ireland and South Africa go head-to-head in an epic match in Paris on Saturday evening, Townsend and his players came into this match with more clarity about their own position in Pool B.
Ireland’s victory over the Springboks removed any doubt that Scotland needed bonus-point wins over Tonga and Romania next week to strengthen themselves against the Irish in their final match.
They started brightly and thought they had scored the opening try after just 90 seconds when Blair Kinghorn gave chase to his own kick.
Racing from his own half, Kinghorn opened the throttle to outwit the Tongan defense, but he couldn’t quite collect the ball cleanly and tapped just inches short of the try line.
But Scotland’s early promise was tangibly rewarded after five minutes when a thunderous maul from just inside Tonga’s 22 rumbled towards the line.
Hooker George Turner eventually qualified for Scotland’s first try of the tournament and it was a sign that the set-piece was functioning in a way it never did against South Africa.
Russell made the conversion before a penalty from his counterpart William Havili put Tonga on the scoreboard at 7-3.
As was the case in their match against Ireland, Tonga came in at the breakdown and scored some huge goals.
It’s not often that Van der Merwe is knocked back on contact, but the Tongan behemoths put on quite a display of power.
But after twenty minutes they showed there was more to their game than just flexing their muscles and grunting by scoring a try with a beautiful, flowing team move.
Charles Piutau, one of four former All Blacks in Tonga’s starting XV, was heavily involved, as was fly-half Havili, with winger Solomone Kota completing the move.
That would have been a shock to the Scottish system and certainly a test of mettle, but their response was swift.
Just five minutes later, a great team move saw Russell, Sione Tuipulotu and Kinghorn open the space wide for Van der Merwe.
There was no way to stop Scotland’s big winger from so close range. Russell’s conversion went just wide, but Scotland were still in front.
Steyn then took action by scoring Scotland’s third try after half an hour as Townsend’s side began to pull away.
One of four changes to the team when he replaced Darcy Graham, Glasgow Warriors captain Steyn showed good pace and footwork to break through a hole in the Tongan defense.
Steyn scored four tries in a defeat to Tonga at Murrayfield a few years ago and this was another impressive performance from a man who continues to put pressure on Graham and Van der Merwe for the two spots on the wings.
Tonga’s discipline began to fail them. Things went from bad to worse when winger Afusipa Taumaepeau was sent off after 34 minutes.
It was a terrible tackle from Taumaepeau as he led with his shoulder and caught Scotland captain Ritchie on the chin. Referee Karl Dickson should have given him a red card immediately.
Ritchie went for an HIA, which subsequently failed, with the bunker rating system inexplicably failing to upgrade Taumaepeau’s map from yellow to red.
It was a ridiculous decision by the bunker officials and yet another blot on World Rugby’s disciplinary record at this tournament.
Tonga is a team that prides itself on its physicality and making big hits, but yesterday they sometimes went to the extreme.
Late in the second half a yellow card was *upgraded* to red when Vaea Fifita was cleared for a high shot at Russell.
Scotland secured the bonus point on the eve of half-time when Rory Darge converted from close range – guaranteeing them a maximum of five points from this game in Nice.
Leading 24-10 at half-time against a Tongan side that was beginning to look decidedly ragged and ill-disciplined, Scotland were given a warning early in the second half.
Tonga’s captain and tighthead Ben Tameifuna carried powerfully and crashed over the line, with Havili’s conversion bringing them back within striking distance at 24-17.
But Scotland had too much pace and energy for their opponents as the match progressed, thanks to a bench that always looked like it was designed to take the game away from Tonga.
George Horne added his usual enthusiasm and spirit at scrum-half when he replaced Ben White and earned his try when he went over on 53 minutes.
The try was largely down to the strength of Van der Merwe, who had broken free from several tackles before feeding the ball to Horne.
Kinghorn and Darcy Graham rounded out the scoring to add some extra sparkle to the score. A raucous Caledonian crowd at the Stade de Nice roared their approval.
In a match they knew they had to win, and well, Scotland did what was asked of them. They are still in this fight and still in this Rugby World Cup.