What a weekend of shocks and surprises in the opening games of the Rugby World Cup. I was in Gloucester to witness Georgia beating favourites Tonga and the ecstasy on the Georgian players’ faces when the final whistle blew was a joy to behold.
If you thought that a surprise, Japan’s cataclysmic win over South Africa set the competition alight and throws Scotland’s pool wide open. With Samoa beating USA; Scotland’s other opponents in Pool B, Vern Cotter has selected his strongest team line up for their opening salvo against the ‘Brave Blossoms’ at Kingsholm, Gloucester tomorrow afternoon.
For all the talk of Japan’s historic defeat over South Africa, Scotland must remain totally fixated on their game plan. ‘Control the controllables’, is a mantra that is often spoken about by performance coaches and Scotland will need that in buckets as the game unfolds. In rugby we can often get too focussed on opposition traits but my belief is that Scotland should turn the spotlight in on themselves.
Japan were praised to the hilt in the last few minutes of their match against South Africa when they turned down a couple of kickable penalties that would have given them an honourable draw. However they changed the history books forever by scoring a match winning try with the last play of the game.
That decision reinforced my belief that the reason that everyone plays sport is to win but remember that is exactly what Scotland tried to do in their encounter with France in Paris last month when they too turned down the chance of a penalty to draw the match and instead went for a try. Scotland’s final attack did not bring the reward but the mind set shown and self-belief in this Scotland team is there for all to see.
As I have mentioned in previous columns Scotland have greatly improved their game plan and their performances in the warm-up Internationals has allowed the team to focus on accuracy. Up front against Ireland, Italy and France, the signs of the pack effort were evident none more so when carrying the ball in the match against France but the set piece is where the game plan is set.
As we saw against South Africa, Japan scrum really low and base their attack play from ball that is hooked quickly. Scotland do not have that in their armoury and whilst Ross Ford occasionally strikes for the ball the front five will have to be at their best to try and gain an advantage. Dickinson at loose head will need to use all his experience whilst on the tight head Willem Nel can be an awkward scrummager.
Grant Gilchrist gets the nod to partner Jonny Gray in the second row and in the back row Cotter has gone big in selecting the two ball-carrying forwards in Ryan Wilson and Dave Denton at blind side and No8 respectively. There is of course the option to bring on Josh Strauss and Richie Gray from the bench and as the only specialist open-side in the squad; I can see John Hardie playing a full 80minutes of rugby.
The backs select themselves. The midfield is the best available and young Mark Bennet needs to keep playing the attacking rugby that he is best at when he runs hard at the defensive line.
What sets him aside is that he is a line breaker and he has good foot work and links well with his fellow centre Matt Scott. The back three of Seymour, Lamont and Hogg can all score tries but whether that is down the flanks or in support of the mid-field breaks it will be up to Greig Laidlaw and Fin Russell to set the field positions. Sean Lamont will be winning his 98th cap tomorrow and whilst he closes in on the ‘ton’ he needs to use all that experience by coming in off his wing and using his angles to test the Japanese defence.
Japan’s speed and high-tempo game needs to be quashed in much the same way as their ‘chop tackling’ technique took out the physical side of South Africa’s attacking threat. But for me South Africa got ‘spooked.’
What I mean by that phrase is that the South Africans lost their shape and players tried to over force their efforts. Schalk Burger for example knocked on far too many times and the whole team were reliant on trying to break the tackle rather than adapting by standing in the tackle and going for an off load.
I know from experience having played in Scotland’s opening game of the RWC in 1991 just how tough it is to play a team that play with such quick hands and high energy. That team may not have had the bulk nor the scrummage platform that they do now but Japan made life difficult for us especially in the first half and I recall on one occasion thinking that I’d just brush my opponent off on my way to scoring my second try of that match. Eiji Kutsuki’s “kamikaze tackle” sent me into the back of the west stand!
There will be times tomorrow afternoon when the team will be under severe pressure but to win the game it will require calm heads. This is where Scotland are going to have to think on their feet. The structure must be maintained. The systems that Scotland use; their drive from the lineouts and the ability to control their game can deliver a win.
It will have to be earned though. The decibel levels from ‘The shed’, Kingsholm’s infamous north stand are likely to be heard in Tokyo but to put this match into context; it is quite simply the biggest game in Scottish Rugby history!