If Ian McGeechan's selection of Chris Paterson at fly-half had been regarded as a gamble, the outgoing Scotland coach lost his stake against the Wallabies and with it the chance of a final throw of the dice against the All Blacks next week. Perhaps McGeechan, far from putting off an obvious decision, was merely saving Paterson from himself. Brad Pitt would have struggled to look good in the blue No 10 jersey yesterday.
A decent man, not given to outrageous words either of praise or damnation, McGeechan had never explained persuasively why he considered Paterson a wager of the long-odds variety. Before the World Cup, the 25-year-old had started in his favoured role only twice - in a midweek fixture on tour in New Zealand in 2000, and a non-cap match against the Barbarians last May.
Now, after coming up trumps against Fiji, he stepped up to the Brisbane roulette wheel and endured the luck of a man who had backed both the red and the black only to see the little silver sphere wind up on zero. The Wallabies, though unconvincing, cashed in the winning chips.
Paterson's day started badly when a ball smacked him in the face during the warm-up, prompting a quick trip to the treatment room, and it did not markedly improve. It was not his fault that Scotland arrived at the sudden-death stages bereft of an openside flanker. Injury, suspension and retirement had accounted for, respectively, Andrew Mower, Martin Leslie and Budge Pountney. At scrum-half, Bryan Redpath was denied the luxury of what is fashionably called "go-forward" possession, and the scraps that came Paterson's way were as palatable as stale haggis.
As a result, the Scottish tactic of having two kickers - Gregor Townsend was the other - to turn Australia's Wendell Sailor never got going. And though Paterson's shots at goal were unerring, and he finished the tournament with a commendable 71 points, including three tries, he was rarely seen with ball in hand yesterday. There was the occasional flurry of soft handling and scissor moves with Townsend. But it was a spark which never lit the blue touch paper, nor looked like breaching the meanest defence from the pool rounds. Indeed, it was three minutes from full-time before Simon Danielli on Scotland's right wing got his first pass.
By beating Fiji and reaching the last eight, the Scots ensured they will be seeded for the World Cup again in 2007. The immediate future is less promising. McGeechan's stint as coach is at an end - he now moves upstairs as Scotland's director of rugby to make way for an Australian, Matt Williams - but Paterson stands uncertainly on the threshold of a new beginning.
If stickability counts for anything, the former Galashiels schoolboy deserves another chance. He managed to appear in four positions during the course of a single Under-19 tournament in 1997, and has flitted similarly around the back line during his four-year Test career, from full-back to left wing to right wing and now fly-half. A couple of cover tackles on Lote Tuqiri at full pelt demonstrated his defensive nous.
Paterson was a kid operating the Gala scoreboard when the All Blacks came to the Borders in 1993 and walloped the South of Scotland 84-5. If he has felt a decade of hurt at the hands of the southern hemisphere - relieved only by a rare win over the Springboks last November - it is nothing compared with the lengthy campaign waged by McGeechan and his long-time coaching cohort, Jim Telfer. They have had their successes, notably with the Lions of 1989 (in McGeechan's case) and in tandem in South Africa in 1997, but the overall war against Scotland's lack of playing numbers has been a tough one to win.
Telfer said before this tournament that his forward pack lacked the necessary bulk and bite. It was no surprise he was proved correct, but now, at last, it is someone else's problem. Telfer will pass on his none too palatial office at Murrayfield to McGeechan, and Scotland the Brave but ultimately limited will continue the battle against the odds.
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