Scot­land’s in­juries have made mis­sion im­pos­si­ble even more de­mand­ing

Los­ing both Rus­sell and Hardie has turned this into a dam­age-lim­i­ta­tion ex­er­cise for Cotter

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Iwas gut­ted when I heard that Finn Rus­sell, the Scot­land fly-half, is out of this af­ter­noon’s game against South Africa. He was hob­bling around on crutches and wear­ing a pro­tec­tive boot at the be­gin­ning of the week, but I still had high hopes that he would make it. Let’s just hope that he is fit for Samoa, which I am told is touch and go at this stage.

Vern Cotter, the Scot­land head coach, has made an enor­mous num­ber of changes for this game and, while he will deny it, it is clear to me that he is sav­ing sev­eral key play­ers for the match against Samoa. I thought that if we put out our top team we stood a chance of beat­ing South Africa and qual­i­fy­ing af­ter three games, but the loss of Finn and flanker John Hardie was a body blow to those hopes.

I can see how those losses may have changed Cotter’s mind­set and made this a dam­age lim­i­ta­tion ex­er­cise, but I was still sur­prised that he made so many changes and wrapped guys, such as cen­tre Mark Ben­nett, in cot­ton wool.

My worry is that tour­na­ments are all about mo­men­tum, and if Scot­land get a bat­ter­ing to­day, it will af­fect them against Samoa next week. The die has been cast though and these play­ers will just need to step up and do their best against a pretty for­mi­da­ble Spring­bok team, who will not take any pris­on­ers af­ter the Ja­pan de­ba­cle.

That said, this is noth­ing like Frank Had­den field­ing a sec­ond team against New Zealand at Mur­ray­field in 2007. More than half the team are first-stringers and the guys who have come in are all good play­ers who can do a job and may well have been starters in Scot­land teams of the re­cent past.

In par­tic­u­lar, Dun­can Weir is a good player who knows most of the Scot­land back di­vi­sion as he plays with them at Glas­gow. The fact this side is built around play­ers from Glas­gow is some­thing Heyneke Meyer, the South Africa coach, iden­ti­fied as a Scot­land strength.

We should not un­der­es­ti­mate how use­ful it is, es­pe­cially against a new-look and in­ex­pe­ri­enced mid­field. Although he tends to sit fur­ther back off the gain-line than Finn, Dun­can can move the ball well and although he does not have that same abil­ity to put men into space he brings other as­sets, such as an ex­cel­lent kick­ing game.

It is up to Cotter to per­suade Dun­cie to play a flat­ter back-line in at­tack be­cause we need to re­ally tar­get this Spring­bok mid­field. Han­dré Pol­lard, Damian de Al­lende and Jesse Kriel have fewer than 30 caps be­tween them so Matt Scott and Richie Ver­non should be right up in their faces from the get-go.

We also need to move them around and un­set­tle them. We cer­tainly need to start bet­ter than we did against Ja­pan and the United States or we have no hope of get­ting even a bonus point.

Our main pri­or­ity has to be to stop South Africa at source as Ja­pan man­aged to do. They did so by tar­get­ing the ball-car­rier with two-man tack­les – one would go low with a chop tackle and the other would tar­get the ball.

That is eas­ier against South Africa than al­most any other side be­cause their for­wards so rarely off­load out of the tackle, although they com­bat that by us­ing sheer power to burst over the gain-line and take two tack­lers to ground, which means that the de­fend­ing team have one less man on his feet at the re­sult­ing ruck or maul.

So it is es­sen­tial that Scot­land stop the ball-car­rier right on or be­hind the gain-line. Although I have been a bit sur­prised by some of the se­lec­tions, this Scot­land side still has some real qual­ity. Greig Laid­law does not al­ways get the credit he is due, but you could see how much bet­ter Scot­land func­tioned when he came on in the sec­ond half against the USA.

One of the du­els I am look­ing for­ward to is that be­tween the Gray broth­ers, Jonny and Richie, and the two young South African sec­ond rows Lood de Jager and Eben Etze­beth, who they see as their new Vic­tor Mat­field and Bakkies Botha. Again, the loss of an old head in Mat­field will af­fect them more than they maybe ap­pre­ci­ate. He or­gan­ises them up front and is as im­por­tant to them as Paul O’Con­nell is to Ire­land.

Had we put out our strong­est 15 play­ers, I would have been very pos­i­tive about our chances.

While it is still not be­yond the bounds of pos­si­bil­ity that we will win to­day, with the nam­ing of such a weak­ened side, mis­sion im­pos­si­ble just got a lit­tle less pos­si­ble.

My worry is about mo­men­tum. If we get a bat­ter­ing to­day, it will af­fect us against Samoa

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