ON Saturday, Samoa showed what a team full of talented individuals can do once the pressure is off and the onus is on restoring a bit of pride through the manner of their performance, with the result possibly being secondary.
Rumour has it that the Samoans may have taken a more relaxed, old-school approach to their leisure activities in the run-up to this game, and they duly approached the match like an extra tough and motivated Barbarians side.
There was a huge defensive improvement in the second half... we had more urgency, better organisation and threw in a few more chop tackles”
Their success in the first half stemmed initially from their approach to kick-offs, both their own and ours. With nothing to lose, they could risk splitting their chase and gamble on reclaiming their restarts. It worked perfectly for them from the off, so there was no reason to change tack.
Conversely, Scotland perhaps should have looked to vary what they were doing after the first couple of Samoan tries. Instead we stuck with the conservative and standard option of banging it long (although perhaps not quite high enough). Instead of obligingly going into their “exit strategy” and giving us a lineout, as they perhaps would had they had something riding on the match’s outcome, Samoa ran the ball right back at us, even after conceding that bizarre Tommy Seymour try. I had been slightly concerned when I saw that the scarily powerful Alofoti Fa’osiliva was getting what was, for some unaccountable reason, his first start of the tournament, and, sure enough, he provided much of Samoa’s go forward in the first half.
Our chase line wasn’t good on those kick-offs, but that was just one aspect of a fairly shambolic defensive performance in the first half-hour. We ran the gamut of both individual and what defence coaches term “system” errors. There were missed one-on-one tackles, offloads allowed, doglegs, sometimes we were too wide around the ruck, on other occasions we got far too narrow in midfield. I’m no expert on outside centre play, other than knowing it is a horribly difficult defensive position, but Mark Bennett did seem to get caught in no-man’s land on a few occasions, allowing Samoa easy yards on the outside.
After the general mayhem of that period, there were two incidents which swung the match back towards us. First, Ryan Wilson got his yellow, when I’m sure we were all thinking it was going to be a red. Just afterwards, Samoa had a try rightly disallowed for obstruction. When Scotland, for so long a punchbag for referees, start getting marginal calls going our way, you have to think that the sporting gods have decided to give us a long-awaited break. But this Scotland side is making its own luck by generating a decent rapport with the officials, and Greig Laidlaw seems to have added an extra layer of assurance and authority in his dealings with refs this year. Huge egos, these people have, but we may finally be getting better at pandering to them.
There was a huge defensive improvement in the second half and, remarkably, given what had gone before, we kept them scoreless for 40 minutes. We had more urgency, better organisation and threw in a few more chop tackles to counteract their power runners. One man who doesn’t necessarily have to go low to stop ball carriers on the gainline is John Hardie.
Defensive errors can snowball, and it sometimes takes an individual to step up to halt the attacking team’s momentum. Hardie took it on himself to be that individual, and put in a couple of great chest- high hits to dislodge ball. He hasn’t made many steals on the ground as yet, but he does do a lot of invaluable disrupting work while the ball carrier is still in the air.
In attack, things didn’t really click for us in midfield, partly due to the unsettling alacrity of Samoa’s tacklers, and partly because Finn Russell was slightly off key. So, as they did against the USA, Scotland seemed to take a decision at half-time to play risk-free rugby; run off nine, pick and go and drive the lineouts. Our lineout has been superb in the tournament, and I haven’theard many of Ross Ford’s previous detractors acclaiming the world- class understanding he has developed with Jonny Gray. Who would be a hooker? Like goalkeepers, people only notice you when you muck things up. Anyway, with our own ball almost guaranteed (OK, one overthrow apart) we could drive at will, and it was no coincidence that our driving lineout looked much more effective now that we seem to be mirroring South Africa’s six-man set-up, with Hardie playing Francois Louw’s try-scoring role in the boot.
This pared-back approach got the job done but whether the same tactics would give us a chance against Australia is doubtful. They showed against Wales that they have more than enough nous and dog in defence to deal with route-one rugby, and their back row will be rubbing their hands at those arcing runs which Jonny Gray likes to take off nine. Let’s not be predictable and make it easy for Pocock and Hooper, as England did. Kuridrani is Australia’s only really big hitter in the backs, so our midfield may actually find themselves with slightly more scope to get through half gaps and get their hands free than they did against Samoa.
If we are honest, we have only seen glimpses of the high- tempo “Glasgow” style of rugby we were all hoping for from this squad, but you have to be realistic about how that style translates to the international stage. The important thing is that we know there are players there who do have the capability to make the vital offload or identify and take a gap when that one opportunity per match comes along. We need an on-song Russell, Bennett, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour to be at their improvisational best if we are to have any chance this weekend. Although after Saturday, sorting out our defence and kick-offs from minute one is our priority. Australia have seen what worked so well for Samoa, so why wouldn’t they do exactly the same?