WHO can remember when rugby enjoyed a close season and internationals involving northern hemisphere teams were almost as rare as Tory voters in the East End of Glasgow?
Now they are so numerous that it’s hard to keep track of them; it’s a bit like the American tourist in Europe who said, “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Venice”.
Today Scotland play Canada and nobody should expect this will be a romp in the park. Wales are in South Africa and Ireland in Argentina. France, miserable against Australia last week, have the chance to make one of these abrupt reversals of form that they are more capable of than anyone – except perhaps the Wallabies themselves.
And England, having just failed to storm the fortress of Auckland’s Eden Park, are in Dunedin where they will play under a roof and try to justify their brave words about having cracked the aura of the all-conquering All Blacks. There’s no doubt this is the most mouth-watering game of the day.
But Scotland first. We can be sure that any temptation to underestimate Canada will have been resisted. Most of us will know little about the Canadian team, though Taylor Paris on the left wing looked very lively when he had a couple of games for Glasgow the season before last, and the Scottish players will have a healthy respect for Glasgow’s South African-Canadian wing DTH van der Merwe, who starts on the bench. Canada will be hard and abrasive, and we might do well to remember that a dozen years ago they beat a Scotland side that included Chris Paterson, Simon Taylor and a very young Mike Blair, the three outstanding players of their immediate generation.
Moreover this is – to some extent anyway – an experimental Scotland side. That judgment requires two qualifications. First, that description might apply to almost any Scotland XV of recent years. When you lose many more matches than you win, changes are made; you rarely have a settled side or know which is your best starting XV. Second, rugby today is so physically demanding and takes such a toll on bodies that there are almost always, and everywhere, one or two first-choice players injured and on the sidelines.
In fact Vern Cotter has chosen to field a very experienced team. Only Finn Russell and Peter Horne in the backs, and Gavin Reid and Grant Gilchrist in the pack, have fewer than ten caps. The back-row of Alasdair Strokosch, Johnnie Beattie and Kelly Brown have 133 in total. All in all the starting XV has 413 caps. However, between them they have scored only 40 international tries, a statistic that shows just where and why we have been failing. Sean Lamont has scored 12 of these, but they have come in 87 appearances. Only Stuart Hogg, five in 21, and Tim Visser, seven in 13, have an impressive ratio of tries to games. Visser’s record shows why Scotland must field him, despite his occasional defensive frailties.
So this is a match Scotland should win, eventually, one hopes, decisively. There are stiffer tests ahead, in Argentina and South Africa, where Cotter will have to do without the players contracted to French and English clubs.
The match in Dunedin offers a fascinating prospect. There’s no doubt that the All Blacks were some way short of their best last week, making a fair number of uncharacteristic mistakes. England should take some credit for this, their aggressive defence provoking several handling errors.
Perhaps the All Blacks were a bit ring-rusty. More worryingly for them, they were outplayed at the set-piece. England’s line-out was more secure than theirs and the English set-scrum was dominant. Moreover, while England were down to 14 men when they conceded the only try of the game, the All Blacks were lucky not to have had two players sent to the sin-bin for “professional fouls”.
Stuart Lancaster is now able to field what is on paper a stronger XV. His liveliest scrum-half, Danny Care, is back , having missed the first match on account of injury, and the Saracens and Northampton players are again available. Fielding Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell in the centre has allowed the coach to switch Manu Tuilaigi to the wing. This is an interesting experiment, perhaps a bold one. He has little experience in that position and is undoubtedly going to be tested by the All Blacks’ kicking game. But if he has chances to run the ball back, it’s New Zealand’s defence that will be severely tested.
My guess is that the All Blacks will have learned from last week, will improve, as they usually do, and come out on top. But, if England can pull it off, it would be a great thing for northern hemisphere rugby. It would also be a well-deserved triumph for Stuart Lancaster – especially when you remember the mess England were in when he took over.