Updated: Jun 22, 2020
If Scotland thought their world cup could not get any harder, then think again. Japan’s victory over Ireland has ignited this world cup and blown pool A wide open. Having attended yesterday morning’s Samoan team run and final press conference in the Kobe Misaki stadium they are full of confidence and have set their sights on beating Scotland with a comprehensive performance of physical aggression and attack minded play.
To counter this approach Gergor Townsend’s new look team will have to dig deep and find some early form to impose their game on Samoa but within that selection there are 3 distinct areas that determined his final line up.
Front 5: By selecting the same front 5 players that started against Ireland Townsend has given a strong indication that this is where he wishes Scotland to mount their challenge. It a second chance for these players with props Dell and Nell looking to scrummage lower and lessen the power of Samoa’s prop forwards. Their opposing props are big men but technically the Scottish boys must be technically more astute. Stuart McNally has so many good qualities as a hooker and as Captain, his ball carrying ability is one of his strengths but against Ireland he could not break a tackle. To impose himself on the game he needs to lead from the front as it helps Scotland to get onto the front foot.
The Scotland skipper also needs to ensure that the line outs are a source of good ball and with Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray locking horns in the second row they are the glue that allows the front row to take Samoa on at the scrum and to disrupt their ball. I do not think I have ever seen Gray look so devastated after a game as I did after the Irish match but now is the time he needs a man of the match performance. Yes, he makes his tackles and carries effectively but I want him to impose himself on the game in much the same was as an Alun Wyn-Jones does for Wales or Joe Launchbury does for England. I do believe that Gilchrist has outperformed his cohort in previous games but as a pair they can not afford not to deliver and ensure that as part of the fron 5 they give Scotland the dominance up front.
The back row: If the front 5 got a reprieve then the back row has been culled. Whilst the team selection against Ireland was all about experience this back row are anything but. Within only 23 caps between them, it is an untested trio and I feel Townsend has been forced into making this selection out of shear necessity to combat the physicality of the Samoan back row. Out goes John Barclay and Ryan Wilson and in comes Magnus Bradbury and Blade Thomson to give that edge. It is a big ask for both these players but Bradbury for one will give his all having originally not been included in the world cup squad.
He has a big chance to stake a claim as a permanent fixture in the backrow and if he can hit the level of performance that he achieved in the match against England in the 6 Nations then his performance will test the Samoans. Thomson, the New Zealand born Scarlet’s player has a very good tackle game and has shown that he carries the ball well into contact. He has not completed a match yet for Scotland but it is important that the back row work in unison to negate the Samoan ball carriers.
Completing the back row, is young Jamie Ritchie whose timely return to action following surgery to his cheekbone only 3 weeks ago allows him to step seamlessly into the openside position following Hamish Watson’s injury against the Irish. Townsend said in his press conference 2 days ago that Ritchie was the one player in this squad to show a consistency of performance and proved eager in training. He will give it his all and as a genuine openside flanker the ball on the deck will be keenly contested as first hands either secures possession or can lead to turnover ball.
Back three: The back three sees one alteration with the inclusion of Darcy Graham who replaces Tommy Seymour. Graham presents an amazing energy on the field and no one doubts his commitment but if that energy can rub off on Maitland and Hogg then there is no doubt Scotland will look to these players to score.
Maitland does not have out and out pace but he is a competent footballer who makes the most of his skill set. His defence is generally good and occasionally his line running through the middle opens defences but his work rate and communication with Graham and Hogg will be important as Samoa are a dangerous threat with ball in hand. Finally, what can we make of Stuart Hogg? Ireland squeezed him out the game last week and he was not able to impose any authority. Today that needs to change. His greatest threat is his broken field running and if Scotland can disrupt Samoa’s defence then that running can act as a catalyst to all out attack.
There has been much criticism following last week’s performance however there is only way to answer that criticism. It boils down to attitude and performance and winning a game of rugby. Scotland must create an intensity and urgency to their game. It’s time for Laidlaw and Russell to provide leadership and direction and for every player to accept the challenge that’s laid down in front of them. Pull these facets together and the win will come. Misfire and the world cup will be over for Scotland.