From deep inside the bowels of a Manchester hotel ‘Flower of Scotland’ rang loud and clear as Scotland’s rugby league players celebrated the moment they qualified for the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Video referee Phil Bentham’s decision to award a try to Tonga scrum-half Daniel Foster at the Shay meant Italy needed to score three times in the last 17 minutes if they were to get the win that would put them through to the last eight ahead of the Bravehearts.
Scotland’s players knew at that moment they were would be playing holders New Zealand in Leeds on Friday for a place in the semi-finals.
The Tongans duly went on to win 16-0, much to the delight of a partisan crowd of 10,266 at Halifax, and it sparked scenes of joyous celebration in the Scotland camp. “I feel it’s just reward,” said coach Steve McCormack, whose side ended their group campaign with five points out of a possible six but still needed a favour from the Pacific Islanders to reach the knockout stages.
“We all watched it in a room together and to have that much emotion and pleasure from a game that we could not control was unbelievable.
“Every Tongan tackle and try and break was met with a big cheer and, when we heard the Halifax crowd began chanting for Tonga, we starting chanting as well.”
Scotland’s celebrations were quickly cut short as their focus turned to the enormous task that awaits them at Headingley.
New Zealand have eased into the knockout stages virtually untroubled, scoring 146 points in their three group games, but scrum-half Peter Wallace, one of three NRL players who have made their Scotland debuts in the tournament, insists they are beatable.
“The Kiwis aren’t super-human,” Wallace said. “They’re a good team but it’ll take a massive effort to beat them.
“We’ll do our best and give it our all and see where that takes us. We’ve got nothing to lose and it will possibly be the last World Cup game for a few of the boys so it will be a special occasion for us.”
The Scotland squad will gather in Leeds on Monday morning to begin training for Friday’s game but for McCormack, who is on leave from his teaching job, the work began before Sunday’s final Group C match.
“We had two plans,” he said. “We were either going to say ‘thanks very much’ and go our own ways or start preparing for the quarter-finals.
“The coaching staff have already made a start. We’ve done some work on New Zealand but our main focus will be on ourselves.”
With a host of part-time players in their 24-man squad, the Scotland management was on Sunday night busily making arrangements for a busy week ahead, with hopefully all of McCormack’s players on board.
“Josh Barlow is fitting fireplaces on Monday but he’ll join up with us on Tuesday and the lads who work at Sellafield will have to ask for the time off,” McCormack said.
“I’m lucky that I’ve got time off. All the employers have been very supportive. We couldn’t have asked for more.”
Quarter-final pairings are: Friday, November 15: Leeds - New Zealand v Scotland (8pm); Saturday, November 16: Wrexham - Australia v USA (1pm); Wigan - England v France or Samoa (8pm); Sunday, November 17: Warrington - Fiji v France or Samoa (3pm).