Vern Cotter has given youth its chance and as such Scotland are a hard team to get a good read on.
Scotland have shown an uncanny ability to implode at vital times in the last 18 months – something they can’t afford to do if they want to make it out of their pool. RICHARD BATH reports.
THEY ARRIVE IN ENGLAND AS..?
Bit part players. After a truly forgettable Six Nations in which they were beaten at home by Italy and ended up with the wooden spoon, expectations are as low as they have ever been. Indeed, Scotland are now ranked 10th in the world, one place below pool opponents Samoa, who are rated by virtually all bookies as a better bet to win the pool than the Scots. Scotland will struggle to give South Africa a decent game judging by their two recent heavy defeats against the Boks (55-6 last summer in Port Elizabeth and 28-0 at Murrayfield in 2013), and most of the Scots seem to accept that their final pool game against Samoa will determine whether they make it to the knockout rounds.
At first sight the auguries are not great: when the two nations last met, in Durban last summer, Samoa beat Scotland 27-17, although Scotland did win 17-16 in Apia the previous year. Even the much-improved minnows Japan and US Eagles are targeting Scotland as their potential to spring an upset.
There are, however, some reasons to be cheerful for the Scots: new coach Vern Cotter has a track record of success and has now had time to work with his players; Glasgow’s Pro12 win has re-energised morale and self-belief; while two handy South African-born forwards, tighthead WP Nel and backrower Josh Strauss, have just become eligible to play for their adopted country.
WHAT TYPE OF FOOTBALL WILL THEY PLAY?
Fast and loose, the same way that Cotter and his confrere Joe Schmidt turned Bay of Plenty from provisional also-rans into one of the most exciting sides in New Zealand. Cotter has adopted the same approach with Scotland, picking young players and giving them licence to express themselves. He has also based his side heavily upon Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow which this year won the Pro12 by being fiendishly hard to beat and never knowing when they were done.
ARE THEY SUITABLY MOTIVATED?
If the events of the past four years – going out in 2011 at the pool stage for the first time ever, and then winning the wooden spoon this year – were not enough to motivate Scotland, nothing ever will be. Glasgow’s win and Edinburgh’s charge to the European Challenge Cup final have given players a taste of victory, and in most positions there’s genuine competition. Scotland play their two big games in Newcastle, which is just 50 miles south of the border, so there will be a sizeable Scottish crowd. Motivation should not be an issue.
DO THEY HAVE ENOUGH PERSONNEL DEPTH?
Incredibly given that there are only two professional teams in Scotland, for once strength in depth is very much a secondary issue to the quality of the players. In every position outside of the frontrow, there are at least two decent options for every shirt.
The addition of two recently qualified players in Edinburgh prop Nel and Glasgow skipper Strauss, the former captain of Super Rugby outfit the Lions, has helped provide two more players who are likely to be in the starting line-up or on the bench.
CAN THEY COPE WITH THE PRESSURE?
Not if the results over the past four years are any guide. Scotland not only got beaten by both Argentina and England at the last World Cup, but they even struggled against Romania
(34-24) and Georgia (15-6). Even under Cotter this season, they worked themselves into winning positions against the Welsh, French and most heartbreakingly at home against Italy before folding in the last quarter (they did the same against the All Blacks, who they trailed by a point with nine minutes left before missing an easy penalty and then conceding a soft try).
WHERE ARE THEIR WEAKNESSES?
This is a pretty young and inexperienced side, so game management is a real issue, as Scotland showed when they missed touch with seconds to go against Italy and the Azzurri ran back the ball for a try that consigned Scotland to the wooden spoon.
Defence, however, is an even bigger worry: Scotland consistently leak tries and penalties at key moments. Without a genuine ball-winning No 7 they also struggle to win the ball at the breakdown and this is where they have really come unstuck against the top sides. Facing Ireland at Murrayfield in their last Six Nations game, for instance, the two sides’ stats were roughly the same in attack, at the set-piece and in the tackle, but the breakdown was a disaster, with Scotland conceding 12 penalties to Ireland’s six, conceding 20 turnovers to Ireland’s 11, winning just 71 per cent of mauls to Ireland’s 87 per cent and winning just 91 per cent of rucks to Ireland’s 96 per cent.
WHAT ARE THEIR KEY STRENGTHS?
Scotland actually have some genuinely decent players. Up front ballcarrying second row Jonny Gray is a future British Lion, while his 2.06m brother Richie has already been a Lion.
In players such as David Denton, Josh Strauss and Adam Ashe they have effective ball-carrying loosies, and in veteran scrum-half Greig Laidlaw they have a captain and goal-kicker with an unerring boot. Behind the scrum stand-off Finn Russell, who played club footie in Canterbury in 2013, is a talented runner and distributor, while centres Mark Bennett and the fit-again Alex Dunbar are shaping up to be the best centre partnership Scotland has had since John Leslie and Alan Tait. Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour provide gas out wide, but without a doubt that star of the side is fullback Stuart Hogg, a strong-running, big kicking Borderer who has an uncanny ability to carve his way past several would-be tacklers before being dragged down.
WHAT POTENTIAL PROBLEMS COULD THEY INCUR?
Despite the confidence gained from Glasgow and Edinburgh’s success this year, the Six Nations was a deeply traumatic tournament for many of the players and it will be a challenge to get them to play with freedom or to bounce back for the Samoa game if they sustain a hefty defeat against South Africa. They have also suffered injuries to key players such as skipper Grant Gilchrist, two of their three best centres, their three best wings and Maitland and No 8s Denton and Ashe, most of whom have just come back recently, so whether they will hold up is a genuine concern.
DO THEY HAVE A STRONG ENOUGH LEADERSHIP TEAM?
Cotter is a strong, brooding leader but on the field this is a callow side indeed, partly because the Kiwi is determined to give youth its head. Against Ireland, the six outside backs averaged almost exactly 23 years of age and had an average of 16 caps, and it’s a pretty inexperienced pack as well, notwithstanding the elevation of Strauss, with six of the likely starting pack having 13 caps or less and including two 21-year-olds. It is this lack of experience which has persuaded Cotter to recall veteran flanker John Barclay to Scotland’s training squad.
BALL HOGG : Stuart Hogg could ignite the Scots.
GRA Y MA TTER S: Johnny Gray is a terrific prospect.