IT WAS so hot during Scotland’s 2012 tour to Samoa that, when one middle-aged journalist who should have known better decided to jog back to his hotel from training, one of the players noted that he looked like “a melted candle”.
Despite the heat, Scotland won that nailbiter in Apia, thanks to a late try from Rob Harley, but they should not have done. The home team bossed most of the match and they were denied a perfectly good try when the touch judge raised his flag after winger Paul Perez snapped up a loose ball inside his own 22 and showed everyone a clean pair of heels up the right flank.
His foot hadn’t been in touch. His foot wasn’t even Facebook friends with the touchline; it was another “tier one” decision from the officials and the headline in the local press the following day: “Manu Samoa Robbed” said it all.
The islanders hadn’t been much luckier at the opposite end of the globe and the thermometer. In 2010 at Pittodrie, match officials, members of the Scotland management team and even a few hardy journalists were roped into clearing snow off the pitch before play could get under way. This time only a Ruaridh Jackson penalty in the dying minutes saved Scotland’s blushes as the home team ran out 19-16 winners.
Samoa finally got their long-awaited victory over Scotland in 2013 in Durban in a four nations tournament which also featured hosts South Africa and Italy. In the Kingspark Stadium, Alesana Tuilagi scored a muscular brace of tries, setting the tone for the entire match that was a pretty one-sided affair. Helped by 19 handling errors from the Scots, Samoa ran out comfortable 27-17 winners.
The big winger is missing from this afternoon’s game thanks to a ban for foul play which may have contributed to Samoa being rated rank outsiders today, even if it’s a little difficult to understand why. They have beaten Scotland once, they should have done so previously in Apia and they handed their cousins in the All Blacks a fright in the summer when the visitors were happy to get out of town with a scrappy and unconvincing win.
The recent history between Samoa and Scotland is littered with close games and near misses, so why on earth are the Scots overwhelming favourites to reach the quarter-finals?
The rumour mill suggests that all is not well in the Samoan camp. It might explain the less than heroic performance last week when the islanders’ discipline, never their trump card, gifted Japan 19 penalties.
The Samoan press have hinted at a rammy in training, not between two players, which is not an unusual occurrence, but between a player and a member of the coaching staff.
The Samoa Observer alluded to this incident in an article earlier this week when they asked head coach Stephen Betham directly if one named player was still with the squad. He was then, the coach confirmed, but whether he is now remains unclear.
Scotland have faced Samoa twice before in the World Cup, in 1991 and 1999, winning both matches comfortably.
In the 1991 quarter-final the Scots fought muscle with muscle, utilising Gavin Hastings as a first battering ram, with the back row driving into the Samoans at every set piece, attacking them in numbers with “one-out” rugby that circumvented the need for any loose passes the islanders could capitalise upon. The tactic worked a treat, Scotland winning 28-8 at Murrayfield to set up a semi-final clash with England, and you have to think that Vern Cotter will instruct his charges to play a tight and rigidly controlled opening quarter today.
At the 1999 World Cup, the Scots scored three tries and Kenny Logan kicked five penalties to end Samoan dreams with a 35-20 victory in front of a meagre 20,000 fans in a pool match at Murrayfield.
There will be a full house, or as near as makes no odds, this afternoon at St James’ Park and this match will likely go one of two ways. Samoa make some early hits, rack up some points and rattle the Scots, physically and mentally, who then have to grind out a dour win.
Alternatively, the Scots forwards dominate the set piece, pressure Samoa relentlessly and milk penalties, enabling Greig Laidlaw to fill his boots and turn the score board. The Scots maintain discipline, keep the error count low and score several tries late in the game when the game is won and with one Samoan foot on the flight home.
South Africa needed to win last weekend, and they did. Scotland need to win today and, one way or another, they should do so.