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
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