NZ Rugby World Tournament Guide - - CON­TENTS -

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.

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