AS SCOTLAND’S long pre-Rugby World Cup campaign fast approaches its actual matchplay phase, the anxiety about picking up injuries is inescapable.
A four-Test series, which is at least one game more than ahead of previous tournaments, kicks off a week on Saturday with an evening clash against Six Nations champions Ireland in Dublin. That is followed by an away, then home, double-header against Italy before a meeting with France in Paris just after the final 31-man squad has been announced.
As Scotland’s only veteran of four World Cups, record cap holder and points scorer Chris Paterson has plenty of experience of these warm-up games, and says the players have no option but to approach them at full tilt.
While football friendlies can often be played at half-pace with knock avoidance at the forefront of the mind, in rugby it is generally believed that this is counter-productive, with the risk of injury, ironically, heightened by any backing off. While Vern Cotter and his coaching team will do their best, through squad rotation and use of the bench, to minimise the possibility of damage, the hazards are unavoidable and simply part of the game.
“It is very important to play 100 per cent. You have no option. There is no point holding anything back,” said Paterson yesterday.
“But when you have been locked away pre-season for so long you are desperate to play and desperate to impress. The games are designed to put you under the spotlight and your place is determined by how you perform so you have to get out there and do that.”
Paterson is braced for the possibility that some World Cup dreams could be ended in the cruellest fashion over the coming weeks.
“I have yet to see World Cup preparations not being disrupted by injuries popping up right, left and centre,” he said. “Injuries are unfortunately going to be a big part of preparation. That is what is so crucial about this phase. You train with a big squad and are ready when they get a chance because there will be injuries and the intensity.
“The warm-up games will be full games and unfortunately knocks will be picked up.”
The recent progress of pool opponents South Africa in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship has been closely monitored by Paterson, who is now a specialist skills coach and rugby ambassador with the SRU. The Springboks have lost their opening two matches, 24-20 away to Australia and 27-20 at home to New Zealand, but Paterson has nevertheless been impressed.
“They have changed the way they play,” he said. “They have always been physical, maybe to the detriment of their open game. They now have another string to their bow. Their two new centres, Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have an attacking edge.
“They are playing well, although they will be disappointed with their results and may want to go back to a more structured game plan. But, on the day, they have a depth that can rival anybody.”
The build-up is a long one, but the tournament in England is beginning to hove into view.
“It is amazing how quickly it comes around,” said the 37-year-old, who won 109 caps for his country and played in all World Cups between 1999 and 2011. “Scotland are working hard but don’t forget every country is because they have this extra time together too.
“I have seen our boys train and talked to the guys and I know how hard they are working. They will be ready now to look ahead to the games.”
Paterson was speaking at the launch of this year’s RBS Varsity Match between University of Edinburgh and University of St Andrews at BT Murrayfield on Saturday 26 September, kick-off 6pm.
In recent years the world’s oldest varsity fixture has been staged in London as a means of fostering connections with alumni, but it returns home for the next two years with women’s and 2nd and 3rd XV matches part of the warm-up.
Supporters can enjoy the full day for free, by registering in advance for tickets via Eventbrite. After heading to www.eventbrite.co.uk, they should simply search “Scottish Rugby Varsity Match” and register for up to two tickets each. Admission on the day will be £5.