IT IS little wonder that the theme of the week in the Scotland camp has been the danger of giving New Zealand too much respect. While other nations have tried to debunk the All Blacks’ reputation for near-invincibility, there have been times when Scots, albeit inadvertently, have burnished it.
Former national director Jim Telfer saw New Zealand as, in many ways, the model for Scottish rugby to emulate. His friend and successor Ian McGeechan once typified the All Blacks as “Scots who have learned how to win”.
When even such influential figures as those two looked up to the New Zealanders, is it any wonder that so many of our players have seemed awestruck by them?
Still, once you have decided not to give the All Blacks too much respect, you cannot simply opt to discount their ability and treat them as if they were just another opponent.
It is a matter for careful calibration: yes, you should try to impose your own game plan rather than allowing them to dictate the terms of engagement, but at the same time you must stay wary of the danger they pose throughout their team – and throughout the game.
One of the most important characteristics of the New Zealand team, of which they gave further evidence in last week’s hard-fought win over England, is their relentlessness. As much as is humanly possible, they try to eliminate the slack periods in Test matches which so many other teams accept as inevitable.
Instead of that familiar ebb and flow, they simply aim to begin a game well then become irresistibly stronger the longer it goes on.
Scotland, who conceded two tries in the last five minutes against Argentina last week, cannot afford similar slackness against the All Blacks this evening.
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Note that those tries, which produced a final, flattering-to-the-Pumas score of 41-31, were both scored by replacement Tomas Cubelli. If a relatively slightly-built, second-choice scrum-half can do that sort of late damage to the Scotland defence, what will be the home team’s chances of halting the turbo-charged brick outhouse that is Sonny Boy Williams, should he come off the bench in the closing stages?
While rightly happy, in the main, with their first outing of the autumn, the Scotland squad know that those late lapses, as well as the more general slump in consistency in the second half, need to be eliminated.
If they are not, as Richie Gray warned yesterday, the All Blacks will simply keep plugging away and picking up score after score.
“The key to New Zealand is that they’re very efficient in what they do,” the Castres lock said. “They play with great accuracy and do the simple things very well. Because of that, they constantly keep pressure on other teams. If you keep putting on pressure, then naturally any team in the world will become tired against it.
“You’re able to stay with them for large periods of the game, then in the last quarter, because they’ve put you under pressure, they pull away. Hopefully that’s not the case tomorrow and we can cause a bit of chaos in their game so they can’t do that.
“It’s about staying in the present and focusing on ourselves. It’s about concentrating on the next job around the park and hopefully we can see it through.”
While some recent Scotland coaches have taken an over-complicated approach improving the national side, the incumbent, Vern Cotter, eschews obfuscation. Or, as he would prefer to put it, he keeps things simple.
“He’s been very, very clear about what we have to do and about raising our standards,” blindside Rob Harley said of the New Zealander. “In every skillset we have, from contact area to set piece and our attack, we’re always pushing ourselves to improve our standards, because that’s what the All Blacks do.
“They play very, very efficiently and have very effective and accurate skills. We have to go in with our skills as polished as possible in all those areas.
“He’s been looking at what they like to do in attack: this is what they do, they try to defend this way. This is what they like to do, so this is how we should try to play. It’s exciting for us to have that focus of ‘Let’s go out and play our patterns and impose what we want to do on the game’.”
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has made 13 changes from the team that started the 24-21 win over England a week ago, but the visitors’ style of play will be little altered. They too will aim to go out and play their patterns and impose themselves.
And if they fail to do so? If Dan Carter does not quite get up to speed on his first Test start in a year and Richie McCaw is so fazed by wearing the No 6 jersey that he plays badly? Well then, Hansen will turn to that bench, and unleash the likes of Williams, winger Julian Savea and hooker Dane Coles.
We should hope for a win, but, bearing in mind the strength of the opposition, we should not automatically be disappointed if it does not arise.
That’s the reality for this Scotland team at this stage of its evolution: they can all too conceivably lose to the All Blacks and yet be pleased with how they have played.
This early in Cotter’s time as head coach, the need above all is for the improvement shown last week to continue. That’s the bottom line. And let’s be honest: Scotland could play a lot better today than they did against Argentina, yet still lose by a few scores. Which, even allowing for the makeshift nature of the New Zealand side, remains the most likely outcome.
Meanwhile, Cotter has been forced to make one change on the bench – David Denton is in for Tim Swinson, who has a back strain.
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