TONGA are a better all-round team now than they were the last time they played Scotland – and they were good enough to win then. That was the warning yesterday from national assistant coach Matt Taylor, who believes the home team can have no room for complacency this weekend as they try to build on the positive elements of last Saturday’s 24-16 defeat by New Zealand.
Scotland lost to the Tongans at Pittodrie almost two years ago in a match that resulted in then head coach Andy Robinson leaving his post. Recent months have seen undeniable progress under Vern Cotter, but Taylor warned that, with World Cup-winning coach Jake White now working with Tonga, this Saturday’s match on the synthetic surface at Rugby Park will be tough.
“We all know what happened the last time at Pittodrie – we lost to them and unfortunately Andy Robinson lost his job over it,” Taylor said. “Tonga are a very good team. The last two games that we’ve watched, they were particularly good in attack. They’re genuine athletes, they can offload, they can run, they tackle quite hard. We’ll need to be at our best to beat them.
“We’re all looking forward to going to Rugby Park because of the surface. It’s going to be a fast, open game, and we won’t be looking to change how we play. It’s going to lend itself to being a really good game.
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“I would say a lot of island teams have many similar aspects,” the defence coach continued, when asked if this Saturday’s game could be seen as a dress rehearsal for Scotland’s World Cup pool match against Samoa. “They like using the ball and they’ve got a lot of flair. Tonga scored two excellent tries against the USA from turnovers, and they’re very dangerous from unstructured, broken play. So a lot of similarities.
“Watching some of their line-outs, for me Jake White may have had an influence on them already. I can see certain patterns he used in the past with the Brumbies and South Africa.
“He’s maybe added a bit more structure to their game. With those island teams, if you can add a bit of structure to their natural flair, they’re very dangerous. They’ve scored a lot of their tries from scrums and lineouts.
“They’ll be a well-coached team. And we lost to them last time, so we’re not taking them lightly at all. We’re looking forward to playing them again on a really good surface.”
While Scotland were following up their five-try win over Argentina with that narrow loss to the All Blacks, Tonga were recording their second win in two games. Having beaten Georgia 23-9 ten days ago, they defeated the USA 40-12 in an encounter to which Scotland will play close attention.
“They’re big players,” Taylor added. “They’ve got genuine threats all around the park. We won’t be taking them lightly at all.
“And they beat us last time, so it’s a massive game for us.
“We need to finish this Autumn series off really well. I think if we do a good job and perform really well at the weekend we’ve had a successful Autumn series.
“I think there’s confidence in the group at the moment. We’ve got a group of players, a majority of players who athletically can mix it with anyone in the world. I think we’ve built some very good depth in the last year or two and we’ve got genuine pressure in a lot of positions. So it lends itself to being a pretty good next couple of years.
“I think we’ve lifted our levels both in attack and defence. Vern has given the players a licence to play and not be rigid, so that’s been great as well.”
Centre Mark Bennett, who was forced off in the first half on Saturday with a hamstring strain, is so far the only player who was involved against the All Blacks to be ruled out of this weekend.
Sean Lamont will come in for Bennett in what could be the only change to the starting line-up.
“We want to continue with the momentum. Apart from Mark everyone is pretty much on track. Sean was excellent [against New Zealand]. He managed to force three turnovers, and he and Rob Harley won our award for how you perform post-tackle. He’s a really important part of the group, both for leadership and playing. So expect him to be in.”
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