SCOTLAND coach Vern Cotter has made four changes to his team to play Tonga at Rugby Park tomorrow, but admitted yesterday that there may well have been fewer but for injury.
Centre Mark Bennett, who will be out for around 12 weeks with hamstring damage, was the only player ruled out immediately after last week’s loss to New Zealand. But he has now been joined on the sidelines by three others who have not recovered sufficiently from that 24-18 loss.
Euan Murray, who like Bennett came off in the first half at BT Murrayfield last Saturday, gives way in the front row to Geoff Cross. Tim Visser comes in for Sean Maitland, Johnnie Beattie replaces Adam Ashe, and Bennett’s place goes to the man who took over from him last week, Sean Lamont.
There are also four changes among the replacements, three of which are a consequence of the promotion to the starting line-up from the bench of Cross, Lamont and Beattie. Prop Ryan Grant, back-row forward Alasdair Strokosch and centre Duncan Taylor are the three who move up, while Kieran Low comes in as the replacement lock instead of David Denton.
“If there were no injuries I think it would have been difficult to change the group that performed well against Argentina, and although we were disappointed with the result against the All Blacks there were positive parts of our game,” Cotter said. “We were always aware that the New Zealand game might knock us around a bit.”
Although Scotland regard that game as a missed opportunity to beat the All Blacks for the first time, Cotter was encouraged by many aspects of his team’s performance both in that match and in the win over Argentina a week earlier. It will still be some time before he settles on a squad for next year’s Rugby World Cup, but he insisted that those players who have been drafted into tomorrow’s team have a high standard to match if they want to hold on to their place when their injured colleagues are available again.
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“[The changed team has] given some players and opportunity to show their talents and that’s exactly how it should be treated,” he said. “They’re guys who want to give their best for the team on Saturday against very difficult opposition.
“We’re working with a group at the moment who I think are setting standards amongst themselves. That’s good, because when our players get pulled into the group these standards will have been set.
“We’ll be looking at what kind of growth we can get from the players in the next two and a half months in the limited opportunities we have, and also get a chance to look at the players we’ve played develop before the Six Nations.
“The players have an understanding of what we want as well, which I think is important. We’ll work together to try to keep the bar as high as possible.”
No matter how pleased he has been both by the two previous Tests and by the summer tour, Cotter is wary of decreeing that any improvement in form can be permanent. “We need to get this game out of the way [first]. We said from the start that this would be the toughest game mentally, getting over the challenge of the All Blacks in front of 60-70,000 people and moving to come to Kilmarnock and playing on a synthetic surface.
“If anything, we’ve looked at this as a challenge to prepare for next year’s World Cup, taking our rugby to England, playing Japan in the first game at Gloucester, moving outside of the certain comfort we have of playing at Murrayfield and being able to impose our game upon a team I think will offer us different challenges.
“They’re very strong physically and very disruptive at the breakdown, very confident after two good wins – not to mention the win they had [against Scotland] two years ago. It’s an important game for us and after that I think I could probably give you a fairer idea of where we’re at.
“This is a series of three games: I really need to see this game. It’s really important that we ask strong questions of ourselves, and we weren’t particularly satisfied with the All Blacks game. There were a couple of phases we didn’t control and we started off not as well as we’d have liked. We need to make a shift from what we did against the All Blacks, because it is a different team, a different game, a different field. We need to construct a game to put them in difficulty.
“I think this game rounds off the three-match series quite well. It’s going to be a rough, abrasive game. We would like to put speed into our game and it’s going to be a challenge for us to do so against a team who will be looking to slow us down. Our
lineout is going well, but we need to improve our scrum, our running lines, skill sets.”
Tonga have beaten Georgia and the USA in recent weeks, and Cotter believes that technical adviser Jake White, who won the World Cup with South Africa in 2007, has helped turn them into a more disciplined unit. “I think Jake White’s had an influence on some of their higher tackles. They play a structured game now. They play off lineout and scrum, they set phase attack, their defence comes up high and puts you under pressure.
“They’ll be a tough nut to crack. I think Jake would like to keep 15 players on the paddock.”
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