Rugby: Get specific in the Pacific
SCOTS must play to their strengths or face a second spanking in Fiji, writes Iain Morrison
Which nation has a better rugby record between Fiji and Scotland? Well, that depends on how you measure it. Sure enough the Scots have triumphed in four of the five full internationals the two countries have fought but the islanders boast the biggest margin of victory in their solitary success.
Back in 1998 they bushwhacked the touring Scots by a convincing 51-26, a result that prompted one overwrought Scottish journalist to react to this humiliation by demanding that Murrayfield be razed to the ground and returned to allotments in a mirror image of what happened on Twickenham’s “cabbage patch”.
It was a handy enough Scottish side, including Bryan Redpath and Gregor Townsend at half back, Eric Peters and Rob Wainwright in the third row and the twin towers of Scott Murray and Stuart Grimes manning the boiler room. Gordon Bulloch, who played hooker that day, remembers the match like it was, well, like it was about 14 years ago.
“I think it was the first match on tour,” says the former Scotland stalwart, who dredges his memory for anything he can find about the day in question. “I just remember that we had a long trip in. I think we’d been training on the Gold Coast [in Australia] and we flew into Nadi the day before the match and we only got to Suva, where the game was played, on the morning of the match.
“There was one big stand at the pitch which was obviously full and elsewhere people just drove up to the edge of the field and stood on the bonnet of their cars. It was very dry and very, very hot. There were a lot of first-time tourists and we didn’t know what to expect. It was a tough game, playing Fiji in Fiji is something that you never forget.”
The Scots scored two tries on the day, from Bulloch and Heriot’s winger Hugh Gilmour on his one and only Test appearance, but Fiji countered with eight of their own and the islanders will be rubbing their hands and plotting the Scots’ downfall even as they offer their visitors the traditional warm welcome.
Fijian skipper Netani Talei has inside information on the strengths and weaknesses of Andy Robinson’s squad, especially the Edinburgh contingent that he plays his club rugby alongside.
Whatever the result, 16 June will be a big day for the island because top-class opposition is a rare enough sight. New Zealand’s full Test team have never visited the island (although the Maori are regulars) and Australia have been there just once, and that was way back in the amateur days of 1984. In what must be their most famous ever victory Fiji even took the scalp of the touring 1977 Lions, who made the mistake of taking the islanders lightly. The British Isles side did not award Test caps for the match, an insult that must have riled at the time.
Back in 1998 Scotland made a decent fist of the first half, turning round one point adrift, but the second looked like one-way traffic as the match turned into something of a rout. Both Scotland props, Gordon McIlwham and Matt Proudfoot, were making their debuts that day and neither man was built for speed or the extreme heat and certainly not the two together.
“I think the side was quite inexperienced,” says Bulloch, and he could just as well have been talking about the current Scotland squad. “I was in my second international season and so too were Scotty Murray and Grimesy. So although the team looked good on paper it was a bit green.
“At the time rugby was changing with just about every match you played because of the change to professionalism and we were only just learning how to control a game. If you fast forward to 2004 when we played Samoa in Wellington under Matt Williams we totally dominated that game and won 38-3.
“In order to beat Fiji, Scotland will have to control where on the pitch the game is played and they will have to control the possession. Fiji tend to live off scraps and they do it pretty well.
“Scotland will have to play to their strengths and also play upon Fiji’s weaknesses. If the islanders don’t want to scrummage all afternoon and counter the driving lineout, then that is what the Scots will have to do, but I’m sure that Andy Robinson realises that. It will be a tough Test alright but it is very winnable.”
Bulloch is disappointed the New South Wales Waratahs cancelled their match against Scotland because, back in 1998, the team got the tour back on track by besting the Sydney side one week after their humiliation by Fiji.
“It would have teed the boys up,” he says, “because you are able to give some of the younger squad members a run. I think 1998 was just about the last long tour with midweek matches included.” Although the IRB are keen for countries to bring back the concept.
Much will depend upon Tuesday’s result against Australia. If the Scots put in a good shift they will travel to the islands in good spirits. If they flop badly again, following the disappointments of Dublin and Rome, then the Fijians will be rubbing their hands in anticipation.
Incidentally, that 51-26 shellacking back in 1998 didn’t appear to do the Scots any lasting damage – within nine months they were crowned champions of Europe.
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