Hope you are enjoying my Rugby World Cup posts – sorry for the delay in posting some of the blogs as I have been travelling all over England. What a rugby world cup we are witnessing and as we boil down to Scotland’s final game against Samoa here is my reaction to last Saturday’s defeat against the Springboks and what is required to make it to the quarter finals!
I do not think Scotland really believed that they could beat South Africa. It was partly down to selection but mostly down to the team’s inaccuracy and inability to match the South Africans in the physical stakes. This was more evident in the first half when the ‘boks’ front five carried the ball with such effectiveness that I wondered if Scotland were ever going to get back in the game.
So what are the lessons learned from the first three games and how are Scotland going to beat Samoa this Saturday and qualify for the quarter final stages for the first time since 2007?
First of all the set piece is going to be crucial. In the scrum Dickinson, Ford and Nell is Vern Cotter’s front row pick. The Samoans will throw a challenge down here as Ross Ford is not a traditional hooker of the ball and therefore he relies on the collective tightness and effort of his second and back rows. The Gray brothers have the bulk but to seek dominance the eight forwards need to be tight and to scrummage as one.
The lineout, often a source of good quality ball for Scotland needs to operate at top efficiency and whilst Ross Ford has improved in this area of the game he is prone to the odd lapse in concentration. On Saturday we witnessed Scotland’s first two lineouts going astray. The first was a poor throw from Fraser Brown, the other a spill at the lineout when the jumper was not protected. It is the precision that sets the tone and letting these two lineouts slip did not help in the early exchanges when Scotland were trying desperately to set their mark on the game.
With the front five sorted the back row selection will be interesting. Blair Cowan played reasonably well but John Hardie is bound to start against Samoa. He is slightly quicker to the breakdown and in the match against Japan he impressed with his support lines of running and awareness to score a quality try. My one concern about Hardie is that I have not seen him effect a turnover yet but his tackling is a strong part of his game and he will need to be at his best when the Samoans come charging.
Josh Strauss, David Denton and Ryan Wilson have all played well and whilst they were unable to out muscle South Africa’s back row they did a pretty good job as so much of the damage was actually created by Eden Etzabeth and Lood de Jager. Strauss is probably the better ball carrier and his ability to play on the blindside with Denton starting at no 8 may see him get the nod over Ryan Wilson but it will be a tight call. Wilson reads the game well and his gritty performances will see him included in the match day squad.
In the back division the calm and composure seen in the first two games was missing against South Africa. Whilst Duncan Weir put in an acceptable performance Finn Russell brings the best out of his outside backs. Matt Scott and Mark Bennet have looked really sharp when Russell plays at fly-half and against Samoa you sense that this will be a key area to attack Samoa.
I remember being part of Scotland’s quarter final win over Western Samoa back in the 1991 competition and the way we out manoeuvred the Samoans that day was to change the direction of the ball carrier so that they could not employ their big hitting tackles. I see this as a crucial area to winning the game. Samoa will be smarting at the way they have played in this World Cup and Japan showed that by moving ball away from contact will create space and space is exactly where Scotland’s back three can dominate.
Stuart Hogg is fast becoming one of Scotland’s greatest ever full backs. He is exciting and talented but I dislike the touches of petulance that has crept into his game. A brush with Tendai Mtawaria and his subsequent play acting should have led to a fine being imposed on him by tournament officials or at the very least by Scottish Rugby. Greg Laidlaw was also sin binned for a professional foul on Bryan Habana and the Scotland skipper will know that this kind of ill-discipline cannot be part of the Samoan equation.
The back division have shown creativity and inventiveness in attack and once again if Scotland are able to shift the point of attack then gaps will appear. On the wings Sean Lamont will hit a century of caps and his ability to be involved in mid-field will help suck in the opposition defence. Scotland’s best attack lines appear to be in the wider channels and with Tommy Seymour on the other wing he has the ability to sniff out the try line.
With wins against Japan and USA, Scotland got within a score of South Africa before succumbing to the two times world champions. We always knew that Scotland’s passage to the quarter finals would hinge on the match against Samoa. It is now time for this team to make its mark and qualify for the knock out phases of this extraordinary world cup.