AFTER two weeks of harsh lessons from the top two nations in world rugby, Scotland have the opportunity in Aberdeen today to show that they have been paying attention.
From the moment that Richie McCaw and Dan Carter pitched up in Scotland at the start of November, stating that they did not pay much attention to their hosts and were seeking to find improvement on the agonising draw with Australia that scuppered their hopes of setting a new record of 18 consecutive victories, there have been lessons aplenty for Andy Robinson’s Scotland squad.
Stand off creative players such as Pirir Weepu, Carter and Tamati Ellison and you can expect to lose tries in the blink of an eye; start slowly and try to feel your way into a Test match and South Africa will grip the game so tightly there is no way back; and when hope does spring a blinkered approach and retreat under pressure to old habits, it only makes it easy for a defence prepared to tackle itself to a standstill. Just some of the big lessons dished out to Scotland in the past fortnight. The challenge this afternoon is quite different. Tonga come with a blend of power and skills that places them among the top-ten nations in the world, but with a lack of game-time for that to be honed into the accurate fighting machine that would propel them higher than their current 12th spot in the IRB World Rankings.
Scotland have spoken this week about Tonga’s win over France in last year’s World Cup and will have paid attention to their defeat in Italy this month, where Tonga were robbed of victory by poor refereeing decisions. Certainly that is how the islanders feel and one could not blame them, having seen the shocking Azzurri try that wasn’t. But complaints are the preserve of teams with weaknesses, those who cannot make happen what they need to happen. New Zealand and South Africa had various tricks up their sleeves and left Scotland querying refereeing decisions, but the key this weekend is to leave the Tongans feeling that way again.
To make that happen, Scotland must be sharper in defence, more accurate in everything they do around the tackle area, the breakdown, and more clinical at seeing and exploiting opportunities in attack.
The three tries Scotland scored against the All Blacks were rightly acclaimed, but they were largely fortuitous, the first an interception, the second a good forward drive and the third from a slick turnover. All were good scores, earned by the pressure, quick-thinking and decisions of Scotland players and should not be under-estimated, but the best score of the past two weeks was arguably that by scrum-half Henry Pyrgos, which has earned him a first Test start this week.
The attacking move called for him to slip through a split lineout may not be possible again now for some time, but it was an example of the Scottish pack and half-backs working together well, spotting a weakness in the Springbok defence and exploiting it with well- executed skills.
Scotland achieved good wins over Samoa at Pittodrie two years ago and in Fiji and Samoa in the summer, but Tonga believe they have the arsenal now, in their most experienced, professional squad to tour the UK, to claim a first South Seas win in Scotland. They believe the game will be won or lost up front, and that their pack has to dominate Scotland at the set-piece and cause mayhem at the breakdown. They have an experienced eight, from dynamic former Chiefs prop Sona Taumalolo, now at Perpignan, to 6ft 8in lock Joe Tu’ineau, the Fiji-born, New Zealand-bred former American football tight end and the veteran back row of Hale T Pole, Nili Latu and Viliami Ma’afu.
Ma’afu is still hurting from effectively being pushed out of Glasgow for what were claimed at the time to be “personal reasons” but seem now to have owed more to the Warriors preferring South African Josh Strauss and not being able to afford both big men. Expect Ma’afu to strive to show Glasgow fans what they are missing and try to attract a new club, while Latu, who plays in Japan, is a sharp openside who is hard to beat at the breakdown and packs a punch in the tackle, and 33-year-old Tevita Hale Nai Tu’uhoko – T Pole – is a powerful man with bundles of experience picked up in a career spent in New Zealand, Wales (Ospreys) and Japan.
If Scotland can at least gain parity in the scrum and enjoy a good supply of lineout ball, the game will hinge on the ability of the respective back rows to dominate when players are brought crashing to earth. David Denton is developing well at No 8, but he, Kelly Brown and the restored Alasdair Strokosch need to be more creative, too, their ability to take contact on their terms, drive the legs, twist and turn as All Blacks and Boks do, imposing their will on opponents in attack and defence, crucial to launching a more fluid and threatening Scottish attack.
They are expected to dominate the breakdown but, in truth, that is a responsibility now for the entire team, and another lesson from the first two autumn Tests where opposition backs and forwards showed themselves to be quick, strong and accurate over the ball. Scotland need improved accuracy and power in what will be a massive battle to create the speed of game that will pressure Tonga and expose weakness. This is where the Scots can and must take control this week and not leave it to the whim of French referee Mathieu Raynal in his first Test.
For the returning Max Evans to be seen, and the back three to be brought into the game earlier and more convincingly than last weekend, the attack has to be sharper and more accurate. Tonga will threaten and Scotland’s defence is a work in progress with new coach Matt Taylor developing new tackle techniques and structure, but, speaking yesterday, back in the city in which he played, Taylor was confident that we will witness improvement. Defence invariably stems from desire and commitment. The legendary Voice of Rugby Bill McLaren once wrote: “In all the discussions about how to organise defences, it surely is sound strategy to recommend to each and every player that, if he is near enough, to ‘flatten the bugger wi’ the ba’.” It is a simple game.
This is Robinson’s side’s last chance to get it right this autumn and, with no Scotland team having gone a full calendar year without a home win since 1998, they are under pressure to leave nothing behind. A promising, but winless Six Nations Championship was followed by a three-Test fillip in Australasia, but we have returned to that frustrating blend of promise without a product in the past fortnight.
It has left Scotland tenth in the world rankings, facing a World Cup draw next month where they will be put in a pot with two nations ranked above them and another highly-pressurised Six Nations looming. Defeats to New Zealand and South Africa are not disastrous, if lessons handed out are learned from.
A performance of conviction and first clean sweep of the major South Seas islands in the same year would suggest they have been, and is all that Scots head into Pittodrie hoping to witness this afternoon.