With seven minutes remaining on the clock at the home of Scottish rugby on Saturday evening, and with the hosts 6-3 to the good on the scoreboard, Rocky Elsom drove over the halfway line with intent writ large upon his face. The Australian captain did not get very far. He was grabbed around the legs by Jason White, pounced on by John Barclay, and duly penalised for holding on to possession.
Chris Paterson – like White, one of the Caledonian cavalry called up from the replacements' bench midway through the second half – kicked to the left touchline and hooker Ross Ford threw the ball to Nathan Hines at the front of the line-out. There followed a series of 10 crisp drives by the Scottish forwards before Rory Lawson, a replacement for the wounded Scotland captain and scrum-half Chris Cusiter, shipped the ball back and Paterson calmly pulled the trigger of his right boot from a range of 25 metres. He hit the bullseye. Scotland were 9-3 up and on the cusp of a historic victory.
All in, the three-minute passage was a thing of sheer rugby beauty: the cool, clinical, controlled manner in which possession was gained, in which the drop-goal opportunity was engineered, and in which Paterson executed the three-point score. Sitting in the coaches' box at the back of the West Stand, Scotland's head coach gave a smile of quiet satisfaction.
In a previous coaching existence, Andy Robinson had been responsible for knocking England's forwards into the kind of shape that set up that last-gasp drop at glory in the 2003 World Cup final for Jonny Wilkinson. The Webb Ellis Trophy might not have been at stake at Murrayfield on Saturday but it was an achievement of considerable import to Scottish rugby that Paterson's kick ultimately secured – after the heart-sinking moment of Ryan Cross breaching the home try line 15 seconds into overtime and the blessed relief of Matt Giteau's mangled conversion attempt, that is.
Not since 4 July 1982, had Scotland got the better of Australia. Inspired by Andy Irvine, their buccaneering full-back and captain, they won 12-7 at Ballymore Stadium in Brisbane that day – the same day that Jimmy Connors beat John McEnroe in a five-set thriller of a Wimbledon final. In the 27 years since then, no Scotland side had managed to get within 10 points of the Wallabies, nor succeeded in restricting them to a tally of less than 27. And this was, with one exception, the same Australian XV that cruised to an untroubled 18-9 win at Twickenham two weeks previously.
It was an unlikely success forged on the same kind of Herculean defensive effort that earned Scotland an 18-12 win against England at Murrayfield in February 2006, when Robinson was on the suffering end as the visiting head coach. The tackle count on that occasion was 112-36. On Saturday evening it was 129-64 to the Scots.
"I've said to the team that that's the most courageous performance I've ever been involved in," Robinson reflected. "The effort that was put in, the way the team got off the floor and kept knocking them back – and credit to Graham Steadman, our defence coach – was incredible. We needed a bit of luck, but the guys worked hard to establish that luck. If we can perform like that, with that same courage every time we go on the pitch, then we can grow as a team. I'd like us to have more ball, but that's the platform for us now. That's the baseline."
Robinson's men are likely to need rather more possession and territory against Argentina this coming Saturday if they are to send their influential head honcho into the Six Nations Championship with a three-wins-from-three 100 per cent record behind him. They had precious little of either against Australia but produced a masterclass in how to play rugby minus the ball. Their scramble defence was superb. Stephen Moore, the Wallaby hooker, had the line at his mercy midway through the first half but in a flash, Rory Lamont, Cusiter and Moray Low were all over him and the player and ball were held up.
It was a similar story when Elsom barged over the line six minutes into the second half. Between them, prop Allan Jacobsen and lock and stand-in captain Al Kellock kept the ball off the floor. Cross did ground the ball over the whitewash after a 20-phase assault took the contest into overtime but then Giteau miscued the conversion, making Paterson's drop and Phil Godman's two penalties sufficient for the Scots to prevail.
The Wallaby fly-half had already fluffed two penalties and a drop goal and he held his head in his hands as his final effort flew wide. "We got what we deserved for not taking our chances," Robbie Deans, Australia's Kiwi head coach, lamented. "But credit to Scotland for their brave defence." Credit indeed.
Scotland: R Lamont (Toulon); S Lamont (Scarlets), A Grove (Worcester), G Morrison (Glasgow), S Danielli (Ulster); P Godman (Edinburgh), C Cusiter (Glasgow, captain); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), M Low (Glasgow), N Hines (Leinster), A Kellock (Glasgow), A Strokosch (Gloucester), J Barclay (Glasgow), J Beattie (Glasgow). Replacements: R Lawson (Gloucester) for Cusiter, 21; N De Luca (Edinburgh) for Morrison, h-t; J White (Clermont Auvergne) for Strokosch, 48; R Vernon (Glasgow) for Beattie, 63; C Paterson (Edinburgh) for Danielli, 63); D Hall (Glasgow) for Ford, 77.
Australia: A Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies); P Hynes (Queensland), R Cross (Western Force), Q Cooper (Queensland), D Mitchell (NSW); M Giteau (Queensland), W Genia (Queensland); B Robinson (NSW), S Moore (Brumbies), B Alexander (Brumbies), J Horwill (Queensland), M Chisholm (Brumbies), R Elsom (Brumbies, captain), G Smith (Brumbies), W Palau (NSW). Replacements: S Kepu (NSW) for Robinson, 17; T Polota-Nau (NSW) for Moore, 46; D Mumm (NSW) for Chisholm, 50; L Burgess (NSW) for Genia, 63; R Brown (W Force) for Palu, 65; J O'Connor (W Force) for Cooper, 73.
Referee: R Poite (France).