I attended both the Australian and Scotland media conferences yesterday and what concerned me was the down-beat atmosphere that emanated from the Scottish camp. The spectre of injustice was bearing down heavily on this squad and given the four changes to their starting fifteen it was obvious that this had affected their preparation in the build-up to the quarter final.
I can understand how the squad must feel and as Greig Laidlaw mentioned the squad is “a little more tighter” but there was no denying the fact that Scotland have lost two key operators. I always knew that Jonny Gray was more likely to receive a ban for the tip tackle of Jack Lam in the Samoan match but I am still surprised that Ross Ford was judged as an equal perpetrator.
If there was a chink of optimism from Scotland, it came from Fraser Brown, Ross Ford’s replacement. I like Brown and in his games off the bench he has made a real impact and knows that Sunday presents a golden opportunity for him to take over from Ford as Scotland’s preferred hooker. “We need to be ferocious but accurate and disciplined”, advised the Glasgow Warrior.
Contrast this with an Australia’s Michael Cheika’s upbeat words. “The game on Sunday is our opportunity. It will be tough, physically difficult and there will be times that we are under pressure. It is about getting the part of our game right to win a game of rugby”, advised the droll Aussie coach.
I did not hear the word ‘win’ in the Scottish camp. According to Vern Cotter, it was all about “staying in the game”, “seeking parity in the forwards” and “securing enough possession”. And that in a nutshell that is where this team is as they face one of the top teams in world rugby.
I also know what it is like to face a team who are odds on favourites in a quarter final of a world cup. Back in 1995, I was part of the Scotland team that faced New Zealand in the quarter final. Inside the camp we expressed confidence but privately there was an inevitability about the result and I can see similarities of tomorrow’s task against Australia.
We are underdogs, there is no denying that and for Scotland they have to do something incredible.
I do question whether they can create enough attacking ball to influence the game? Scotland have yet to put in an 80 minute performance and have continually failed to start games well but someone needs to spark that performance and the collective responsibility will have a huge bearing on whether Scotland can stay in the game.
Greig Laidlaw has been an inspiration for Scotland but it is time for others to take the lead. That means Stuart Hogg bossing the back line and screaming for more attacking ball. Mark Bennett runs great lines and Tommy Seymour has shown that he loves scoring tries but it all counts for nought if the forwards cannot provide enough quality ball.
If Scotland do stay within the game the last 20 minutes could be very interesting but first 5 things have to happen.
Set piece. The scrum has to be rock solid both on Scotland’s own ball and on the Australian put in. If Australia are allowed to dominate up front Scotland could have a troublesome afternoon.
The contact area. It interesting to note that Cotter had opted to start with both Blair Cowan and John Hardie in the back row. Cowan has forced his way into the team despite missing selection to the original squad and he must be having a quiet chuckle to himself. Hardie has played incredibly well and will relish the opportunity to outshine Michael Hooper. Australia’s line up does not include David Pocock. With Cowan sniffing out extra ball in support of Hardie this may disrupt the continuity game that Australia thrive upon.
Defence – Scotland have been saying they must stay in the game. The only way to do this is to stop the creativity and dynamic running of the Ozzie backs whilst denying their forwards gain line carries. Our defence was porous against Samoa and the holes need to be plugged.
Mind-set. Scotland have to get their mind-set and belief systems in place. Eliminate the minor lapses in concentration. One player can lose the game for Scotland through a lack of concentration so the collective effort has to be as one.
Take every scoring chance. Wales created chances and did not take them even against 13 men. Scotland will create chances so every try scoring opportunity, penalty or drop goal has to be taken. Get the scoreboard ticking and Scotland will build in confidence.