NEW ZEALAND may not have chosen a second XV for today’s game – no team with Dan Carter and Richie McCaw could be called that – but the fact that they have made 13 changes from the side that played England suggests that, for all their generous words about Scotland being “on the rise again”, it’s a lesser occasion for them between matches at Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. We may be disappointed but our record against the All Blacks since the game went professional gives us little ground for complaint.
On the face of it, their selection gives us a better chance of at last recording that elusive first victory over the All Blacks, and if we were to do so, I doubt if many of us would feel that the achievement was diminished because it was gained against something less than the full-strength New Zealand side. Actually I’m not sure that our chances are greatly improved. Whereas the team that beat England at Twickenham last week might have been just a little complacent when faced with Scotland, today’s XV is packed with players eager to prove themselves worthy of the famous jersey. And the All Blacks are the All Blacks – whatever side they put out.
Psychologically it is even quite a cunning selection, for it puts more pressure on the Scotland team. Only the most determined or starry-eyed optimists would have looked for a win against New Zealand‘s Twickenham XV. We would mostly have regarded a close match and a defeat by a margin of no more than ten points as a success – even if the players themselves might have thought differently. Indeed, given that the smallest margin of defeat over the last 20 years has been 12 points in the 1999 World Cup quarter-final at Murrayfield, this would have been quite reasonable. Now things are different. This is a less experienced All Blacks side, with a new cap at hooker and a stand-off, Colin Slade, selected on the wing. The mystique is still there; it always is. Nevertheless they are beatable, and the Scotland players must know this. Vern Cotter certainly will, and the players may be fired up by the thought that New Zealand are treating them with less respect than they deserve, certainly less respect than they give England and Wales.
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Actually the All Blacks were below their best at Twickenham. Indeed, although they dominated the second half and should probably have won by more than the eventual three points, they were very poor by their own standards for the first 40 minutes. They made a good many mistakes and, if England had taken the chances they created and had kicked their goals, they might have been almost out of reach by half-time. As it was, the All Blacks rallied and displayed their customary determination and skill to recover and brush England aside. On the other hand, the English scrum was in control most of the match, their lineout was secure and their driving maul consistently effective. It was the poor kicking from the English half-backs, and some poor decision-making, that allowed the All Blacks to play almost all the second half deep in English territory. One lesson Scotland should take is that you are always in trouble against New Zealand if you kick badly from hand.
Another is that you must try to play the game on your terms and take it to the All Blacks. That is what England did in the first 40 minutes and their performance showed that the All Blacks are neither invincible nor perfect. Put them under enough pressure and they can make mistakes just like everybody else.
In recent matches Scotland have almost always started badly against the All Blacks and so the game has been out of sight before it was a quarter old. They can’t afford to start badly again. For this reason I would hope that, if Greig Laidlaw wins the toss, he will choose to kick off. This gives you at least the chance of playing the first minutes of the game in the opponents’ half, even in their 22. Then we have to attack with the controlled intensity we showed against Argentina. If we go up a couple of scores in the first 20 minutes, we have a chance; if we go down by the same margin, the match will probably slip away.
For us the most encouraging result last weekend may not have been the fine win at Murrayfield, but Ireland’s defeat of South Africa. Ireland won with an untried centre combination and several first-choice forwards absent injured, and they won very convincingly. Now Ireland are, of course, the Six Nations champions. They may be the best team in the northern hemisphere, and they have of course beaten us more often than not in recent years. Nevertheless, I doubt if anyone in the Scotland camp believes that there is that much difference between them and us. Certainly the ten Glasgow players in today’s XV have no reason to think so. We beat them in 2013, lost by three points in 2011 and won by three points, also at Croke Park, in 2010. So senior players like Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Richie Gray and Laidlaw know what it’s like to beat Ireland. Ireland’s result last week, beating South Africa who themselves defeated the All Blacks a few weeks ago, shows that the gap between North and South is not as wide or deep as is usually supposed.
The Scottish players should repeat to themselves: Ireland beat South Africa; we can beat New Zealand. Then they might even do so.
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