IF IMITATION is the most sincere form of flattery, then Vern Cotter is laying it on the Wallabies pretty thick after picking an experimental XV that mirrors the opposition’s set up, with two playmakers in the midfield and two openside flankers in the third row of the scrum. Or at least it would do had David Pocock been passed fit for tomorrow’s World Cup quarter-final at Twickenham.
The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that Wallaby coach Michael Cheika is selecting from a position of relative strength, while Cotter has had his hand forced by two midweek suspensions and one injury to centre Matt Scott, who was ruled out yesterday due to a back problem.
In one of the biggest challenges Cotter has encountered in his career, the Scotland coach has resorted to what he knows best and placed his faith and reputation in the hands of two fellow countrymen, specialist Kiwi sevens John Hardie and Blair Cowan.
Both men are tackling machines and mobile with it. Cowan topped the tackle count in the Pool B game against the Springboks with 21 to his name, and Hardie made 18 against Japan.
Both attributes will be needed in spades if Scotland are to put a spanner in the Wallabies’ high-tempo game that feeds off momentum. After failing to slow Japan or South Africa at the breakdown, is Cotter confident of damming the flow of Wallaby possession on Sunday?
“Probably not all the time, no,” growled the coach. “We probably won’t stop them all the time, if we’re being honest. But we’ve got guys with big hearts who will scramble and work hard for each other.
“There will be times when they’ll be on top of us and hopefully we can get on top of them. That’ll be a game of rugby. We’d like to think that, if we work very hard for each other, get off the ground and scramble just to stay in, stay in just through grit, determination and character, we will be not too far away.”
Whatever else happens between now and kick off the Scots are long-odds underdogs and, if that is where they belong, at least they won’t be overwhelmed by any burden of expectation which might even help their cause.
“Every team has its strengths and every team has, not weaknesses maybe, but perhaps areas that can be exploited,” said Cotter on Scotland’s status. “Our job going into this game is looking for opportunities. And that’s what we’re going to focus on, what we can do and do it better but, at the same time, finding opportunities. That’s no different than any other team you play.
“It’s a World Cup quarter-final, obviously we need to be as accurate as we can be. If we do that, we can find those opportunities.
“We’re just looking at this as an opportunity. We’re really enjoying the fact that we’re involved at this stage. We would like to keep going.
“There is a team against us who are very good, probably one of the best in the world. But there are opportunities within the game to have a bit of fun, too.”
Not that fun has always been associated with World Cup quarter-finals. If the decision to pair the two fetchers together was a voluntary choice – Ryan Wilson drops out of the match day squad altogether – it looks like Cotter had his hand forced in pairing Peter Horne with Mark Bennett in the Scottish midfield after Scott’s back problem prevented him from training all week, even though they insisted otherwise. The pair at least know one another from their time with Glasgow.
Cotter was also forced to call up Tim Swinson into his starting XV and hand the hooker’s jersey to Fraser Brown, whose dynamism around the field goes some way to compensating for his wayward arrows, after Jonny Gray and Ross Ford were banned for three weeks. Their appeal is going ahead today at 10am but the subject was verboten and no one expected the bans to be revoked.
“That’s political,” Cotter replied when the topic was aired. “We’re not even going to talk about that, we’re talking about the game. We’re taking a positive approach to a big, big event that we’re looking forward to.
“These guys are competitors. That’s why they play the game. It’s a great challenge for a sportsman to play against one of the best teams, at the moment, in world rugby.
“So the focus is to go out there and win. That’s really the attitude we’re taking. It’s a massive challenge. Get out there and have a real go at it. Have a good go at one of the best teams in the world.
Cotter’s decision to pick two opensides says much about Scotland’s mindset going into this game and, if Scott’s enforced absence reduces Scotland’s gainline effectiveness, it also brings added creativity in the form of Peter Horne. He may not have quite the same glowing resume as his opposite number Matt Giteau, who will win his 100th cap, but the little Warrior is a canny operator with excellent vision and an eye for a gap. Scotland are barely quoted but, from the look of their set up and from listening to their coach, they will come out swinging tomorrow.
“We’ve got a few things we can throw at them to upset them,” Cotter confirmed.
“We certainly don’t want to be taking a backward step in the game. We’re going to have a real go at them.”