Australia superior all over the pitch, but Scots have two Kiwi No.7s who can help spring a shock
It doesn’t happen often but Scottish rugby finds itself on the very centre of the sporting stage this afternoon as they take on Australia in the quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup. It is a rare chance to turn heads and turn public opinion which has coach Vern Cotter’s team listed as long odds outsiders to cause an upset. The twin teamsheets offer little by way of comfort to anyone looking for reasons to lump their life savings on the men in blue. The Scots front row may struggle at the set piece against a side that has earned more scrum penalties (16) than any other team in the tournament, including six against the once mighty English. The Aussie midfield looks admirably composed, with stand-off Bernard Foley the find of the tournament, and while we know Finn Russell can scale the heights, the Samoan match proved that he doesn’t always get much beyond base camp.
While the back three in the back division looks like a good match up, Drew Mitchell, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper have the edge in experience over the Scottish trio of Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg. Both sides boast the weapons to hurt the opposition so this afternoon’s outcome may rest upon who supplies the best ammo...which is where the tartan-clad fans find a small ray of sunshine.
Wasn’t it Graham Henry who said that the No.7 was the most important player on the field? Well, Scotland now boast not one but two of the beggars. Australia pretty much invented the tactic of fielding twin sevens when Phil Waugh and George Smith almost stole the William Webb Ellis trophy from under England’s nose in 2003. Twelve years on Michael Cheika unleashed the “Pooper” machine powered by Michael Hooper and David Pocock that helped beat the All Blacks in Sydney and has caused havoc in this World Cup, winning more turnovers (19) than any other team in the competition.
Now Pocock is lost to a leg injury and it is the Scots who field two specialist sevens... and not just any opensides. In former Highlander John Hardie they boast one of the best in the competition, a natural openside who hits like a jack hammer and who hunts down the opposition stand-off with the feral instincts of a wild dog. If anyone can upset the Wallabies’ serene progress to the semi-finals then Hardie looks like the leading candidate in a pretty select field.
“Having two opensides is a whole different game,” said the Kiwi ahead of today’s quarter-final. “A lot of people are blindsides who can play a wee bit of seven and then there are out-and-out sevens. It just depends what sort of game you want to play. Obviously it works great for Australia.
“Growing up, Australia was always the team you used to watch. There used to be harsh rivalries between them. Everyone who plays the Aussies wants to beat them and find them a tough game. It’s always good to play them. They’re good guys, but it’s a wee bit different on the field.”
Cotter admitted last week that the ruse of fielding two fetchers had been bubbling under for some time and it is easy to understand why, even if Blair Cowan will fill the No.6 shirt and, at least in part, the role of a blindside. Both of Scotland’s Kiwi flankers get through a mountain of work and neither will be fazed by the sheer size of the Wallaby forwards coming around the corner but they are primarily picked as a road block, sleeping policemen to staunch the flow of ball to the Australian danger men, as Cotter explained.
“We’re playing against a team that likes front-foot ball,” he said. “When they’re going forward they’re impressive, they’ve shown everybody what they’re able to do. And having two quick people on the paddock that may be able to anticipate and shut down some of their initiatives may help, we hope.
“They’re a team that are very impressive when they move forward. I’d like to hold them back and stop them getting over that advantage line, stop them getting momentum, which is what they like. I hope that [two sevens] will help.”
With numerical certainty that is rare, Cotter added that the Scots needed to stop the Wallabies within three or fewer phases. Australia are a little like Leinster at their best because they accelerate through the phases, upping the tempo until they reach an offensive blitzkrieg that defenders simply can’t handle.
The key is the breakdown. Unless Hardie and Cowan can stem the flow of front-foot ball the Wallabies are going to be as easy to stop as the Pamplona bulls. And unless every Scottish player can clear yellow shirts out of their own breakdown the outside backs will be mere decorations.
“It’s all down to technique now: you have to get right under them,” says Hardie when asked how, exactly, players were meant to ensure quick attacking ball. “That’s what we’ll be trying to do this weekend.
“It’s going to be really tough. We have to get our technique right. I’m glad they’ve cut down on the neck roll because that’s actually quite dangerous, but there are some fine decisions. That’s up to them [the officials], it’s not up to us, we can’t do a lot about it.”
Twickenham has traditionally been a graveyard of Scottish hopes but at least today’s opposition won’t be the traditional men in white, which may offer the Scots a glimmer of hope. Cotter’s troops are underdogs for a good reason – three victories in the last 20 Six Nations matches tells its own story – but this team does at least come armed with weapons and the intent to use them.
“I’ve been in many teams who’ve been underdogs and I’ve also felt the pressure of being the favourites as well,” says Hardie. “It’s not a bad thing being an underdog, I don’t mind it. You’ve just got to go out there and perform. If we surprise them and take something they haven’t seen before, I’m sure we’ll be in for a good contest.”
“It feels comfortable,” said the Kiwi of his own personal circumstances. “I don’t get nerves, I just feel more part of the set-up now. I’m really enjoying it. A couple of months ago I just wanted to get out on to the field and play rugby instead of sitting there training and not being able to participate too much.
“I’ve loved these last two months. The boys have been really good. What else can I ask for? Quarter-final of a World Cup, playing at Twickenham! Who would have thought that would happen six months ago? It’s pretty surreal.”
Almost as surreal as a Scotland win today.