AS DAY-OFF trips go, a dive with sharks off the east coast of South Africa could hardly have been more fitting for the Scotland squad yesterday.
Kelly Brown will lead his team into what is locally known as the “Shark Tank” on Saturday, the King’s Park home of the former Natal Sharks in Durban, and so they warmed up for their opening Castle Lager Test Series match with Samoa by diving in among the genuine sea-dwelling beasts.
The sight of Brown, Jim Hamilton and Al Kellock, among the tallest members of the Scotland squad, inside a small cage might have seemed appetising to any self-respecting great white, not to mention the morsel value of scrum-half Greig Laidlaw and some front rows, but as they returned to land from the early-morning dive, Brown’s focus was swiftly turning to the real fight he expects to ensue on dry land on Saturday afternoon.
“It was an awesome experience,” he said, “and it was great to get a bit of downtime as we work hard. There were about 15 or 20 sharks around us and they were pretty big but, as soon as you got into the cage, there was a guy outside the gate taking photos, and then you start to think ‘this is not going to be as dangerous as I first thought’. It was good to have a break because the build-up for the tournament is pretty intense on the field, and it has to be because this is going to be a tough few weeks.”
Having suffered a serious leg break, Brown missed the narrow win over Samoa in Apia last year, Rob Harley’s late try and Laidlaw’s conversion sealing a 17-16 victory, but he has enough experience of playing against and with Samoans to expect more of the form which accounted for Wales in Cardiff last year, almost claimed the scalp of France and propelled the South Sea Islanders up to seventh in the world rankings.
“The last time I played against Samoa was up in Aberdeen and we won, but it was the last kick of the game there too [Ruaridh Jackson], so we know it will be incredibly tough. We are upbeat and looking forward to it because we know we have beaten them in the past and that can only be a good thing.”
There has been an intriguing and welcome change in the world order, with nations such as Samoa being helped, finally, to make the most of their strength and begin to compete on a level playing field in Test rugby.
The downside of others’ improvement has been the slide of Scotland over the past decade, where resources have been exposed by a slump to a world low of 12th in the rankings at one point. They currently sit in tenth and this tournament, which also includes hosts South Africa and Italy, will go a long way to showing whether that is an accurate placing.
All four teams will use the competition to blood some new internationalists and, while they all insist that winning is everything, there is little doubt that the pressure to win is not as high here as in the RBS Six Nations and World Cup, at least for all but the host nation.
Scotland coach Scott Johnson does not want players to think that, however, and while bringing in six new faces to the squad for Saturday, he wants Brown to nurture them while setting expectations high.
“There are young players in, and some older guys winning their first caps, but everyone feels the same way – that we play this game to win. We have a strong core of experienced guys who all look after the younger guys, but I have been watching these guys over the last year and they are very good players. They are more than up to it.
“I played against Tom [Heathcote] in the last Premiership game and he is a very strong player with all the skills. In the autumn, we only saw a tiny bit of him. Like many, I want to see more of him because everything I have seen is exciting. He is very chilled and I have no doubt he will do well on Saturday. And it’s great for the squad to have more players pushing and you’re seeing that in training. There are nine uncapped guys in the squad – nine excited young guys – and it has given the squad a lift.”
The Springboks, who Scotland face in Nelspruit next weekend, and Samoa are in Scotland’s pool in the next World Cup and, while that draw seemed as favourable as any could be at the time, good performances over the next fortnight could play a significant part in instilling the kind of belief that Johnson’s and Vern Cotter’s troops will require if they are to bounce back from the humbling of a 2011 pool exit and re-join the top eight in the world’s leading tournament.
Brown said Samoa’s rise in world standing had come as no surprise to the players, most of whom have faced them in recent years and are aware of the investment being put into tier two nations, with full-time coaches, more preparation time and tournaments such as this, where Samoa are given the chance to play tier one nations with their full squad of largely New Zealand, England and France-based professionals available. There is no longer a gap to speak of in the top ten of world rugby, and this weekend it will be Scotland trying to make that point.
“In the psyche of the players, things are no different now to years ago,” added Brown. “These island nations are getting stronger and if you look at the list of scalps they have got over the last five or ten years, it shows they are really tough. So the aim for us is the same as it has always been: simply to play well and make Scotland proud. We will go out there looking to impose our game on them and I don’t see why we can’t do well.
“We showed some encouraging signs during the Six Nations. We are desperate to show that was the start of something.”