THE official SRU stance is that Scotland should be aiming to win this year’s Rugby World Cup, while head coach Vern Cotter has refused to set any target for what would be deemed an acceptable outcome, focusing completely on playing to the highest standard in every game.
Of course, the truth is that getting out of the pool stages and seeing what happens from there is the obvious objective for this year’s tournament in England. It has always been thus and on six out of seven stagings of the global event it has been achieved. In 1991 there was even a step further to the semi-finals, though last time out in New Zealand a first ever group-stage exit was the gloomy upshot from which Andy Robinson’s initially promising tenure never really recovered.
Ask any Scotland supporter and you would imagine that 99 per cent would say that a quarter-final place would be acceptable and defence coach Matt Taylor, a no-nonsense Aussie, is not one for dancing around the issue. In fact, without taking anything for granted of course, he even has an inkling of who he’d like to face in the last eight, more of which later. “What is success?” pondered the 42-year-old Brisbane-born former Scotland A flanker. “Getting out of the group stages at the very least. Without sitting down with the rest of the coaches and discussing what success would mean, and of course knowing that you want to win every game you’re involved in, I’d say getting out of the group is the very bare minimum.
“We’ve only failed to do that once, the last time unfortunately, so we’ll certainly be looking to do that.”
For a long time that was simply a given, to the point where Scotland’s World Cup story became stuck in a slightly tedious loop. Be careful what you wish for, though, as things are not so predictable now. The 2011 defeats to England and Argentina, allied to uncomfortable earlier wins over the so-called minnows of the group, brought about an ignominious early exit that has extinguished any future traces of complacency.
In a pool comprising two-time world champions South Africa, Pacific powerhouse Samoa and the improving Japan and United States, Taylor is singing from the same hymn sheet as his boss when it comes to assessing Scotland’s opponents. “In every World Cup, teams that in the past were amateur or semi-professional are all now professional, so there are no easy games,” said Taylor. “Every World Cup gets harder and harder for any team to get out of the pool stages. So, yeah, it’s going to be tough.”
Taylor has enjoyed success with his old Borders team-mate Gregor Townsend at Glasgow this season, adding the Guinness Pro12 title to a coaching CV that also includes a Super Rugby crown as defence coach of Queensland Reds in 2011. Now his focus turns to the national team, with which he harbours hopes of winning a Six Nations championship and enjoying the “success” he outlined earlier at a World Cup.
His role as defence coach has involved a lot of analysis of the pool opponents, and Taylor is relishing the opportunity to devise methods of dealing with four very different propositions. “Japan and USA will be different to Samoa and South Africa so we’ll manipulate the game-plan to get the result,” said the one-time Aberdeen GSFP player, whose parents hail from Dunfermline.
“Japan want to try and beat you with speed, with fitness, and want to try to run you off your feet. South Africa in the past played a driving, kicking, territory game but now they can play a running style as well so they’re a different style, and Samoa can run at you or run around you, while America is usually quite physical. But that’s what the World Cup is all about, different challenges.
“It’s a challenge [defensively] but that’s why you’re involved in this. We’re doing a lot of research now on those four teams in the pool and as they play more games as we get closer to the World Cup we’ll get a better understanding of their patterns, styles and key players. At the moment I’m working on our boys and getting them defending as well as they can, working on their post-tackle and our defensive systems as well as they can.”
While Taylor has more than enough on his plate contemplating Pool B, his Australian upbringing means he is also intrigued by how Pool A, which includes the hosts, Wallabies, Wales and Fiji, will shape up, not least because it will provide Scotland’s quarter-final opposition should they get that far.
“Yes, it’s the Pool of Death isn’t it? Whoever comes first or second will be very strong and whoever we play it will be a tough game but personally, for a Scottish-Australian coach, England or Australia would be good.”
If we’re being honest, most of us would take that now.