AFTER arguably the worst season in the history of Scottish rugby, with a World Cup pool exit followed by a Six Nations whitewash that concluded with a miserable defeat in Rome, coach Andy Robinson has made six changes for Tuesday’s Test match against Australia in Newcastle.
Loosehead prop Ryan Grant makes his Scotland debut while 21-year-old inside centre Matt Scott makes his first start, with two uncapped players – lock Tom Ryder and utility back Tom Brown – selected on the bench.
Several of the changes from the side that played most of the Six Nations were unavoidable, with second row Jim Hamilton suspended, No.8 David Denton and wing Lee Jones injured, while loosehead prop Allan Jacobsen was left at home and centre/wing Max Evans was unable to tour because his club Castres are in the Top 14 play-offs. Yet there were also some interesting positional selections, with Joe Ansbro starting on the wing for the first time, Sean Lamont moving back to the wing, and John Barclay being shoe-horned into the side at No.8. Dutch winger Tim Visser, the RaboDirect Players’ Player of the Year and leading try-scorer, who qualifies for Scotland under residency rules later in the week, is not available for selection until the second game of the tour.
Despite beating a full-strength Wallabies side 9-8 at Murrayfield in November 2009 courtesy of a heroic defensive effort and a horrible kicking performance from Matt Giteau, Scotland have not won in Australia since 1982. Yet the match, which is followed in quick succession by Tests against full-strength sides in Fiji and Samoa, may not be the most taxing that Scotland play on this tricky tour. The Wallabies, whose three-match series against Wales starts on Saturday, have made no secret of the fact that their focus is almost exclusively on those games, with coach Robbie Deans saying that he will choose his strongest team to face the Grand Slam side.
Scotland are being accorded the status of no-hope outsiders, with Tuesday’s game in the Rugby League heartland of Newcastle slated as a curtain-raiser. While Deans will bear in mind the traumatic defeat in Sydney by Samoa last summer, when he was roundly castigated for under-estimating the islanders, his room for manoeuvre will be limited when he names his Test team this morning. With his starting XV likely to be used sparingly, if at all, the team chosen to play Scotland from the remainder of an injury-hit 39-man squad is expected to look distinctly like a Wallaby B team.
The likely composition of that team will, however, have a profound effect upon the way that Scotland approach this game. All the headlines in Australia have concerned the stand-off position, with the three outstanding performers in James O’Connor, Christian Lealiifano and Kurtley Beale all injured, while the experienced Berrick Barnes has been playing like a drain, Quade Cooper has been injured all season, and the remaining option, former Kiwi Mike Harris, proving a solid but uninspired playmaker.
However, it is up front where Scotland may be concentrating their resources. Scotland’s pack is always competitive and (with the notable exception of tighthead Euan Murray) pretty mobile. It’s also pretty experienced, with three current or former Scotland captains and an average of 30 caps, and is likely to face an inexperienced Aussie pack shorn of its skipper, injured second row James Horwill. Deans’ squad included six second rows, yet four of them had one cap between them, while there is only one Test-quality front row in the squad, and Deans will be tempted to keep his powder dry for strong-scrummaging Wales.
Although Australia have a deep reservoir of back-row talent – especially if openside David Pocock captains the team, as expected – Scotland have a clear edge on experience and size in the front five. While Robinson’s men have struggled to impose themselves in the scrum, they should dominate at the lineout, where Richie Gray and Al Kellock can better anything Australia can offer, even if they field the veteran Nathan Sharp. Scotland’s only worry may be Ross Ford’s increasingly erratic throwing-in.
Robinson’s selections should be seen through that prism. He will undoubtedly try to play a high tempo game, but one built around the set-piece and tight loose. To do this he needs some solidity at the scrum, hence the selection of Murray and debutant Grant, who he consistently overlooked when coach of Edinburgh. Now with Glasgow, the former soldier has developed into a solid scrummager who carries well in the loose.
In the back row, the decision to pick Barclay in his unaccustomed position at No.8 and leave specialist No.8 Richie Vernon on the bench initially appears strange, but Vernon has impressed most as an impact sub when there’s more space later in the game, and any idea that there will be top-of-the-ground conditions to suit his speed is dispelled by the Newcastle weather forecast: a maximum of 15 degrees, with constant rain between now and Tuesday. Securing the ball at the breakdown will also be absolutely key, hence the inclusion of both Ross Rennie and Barclay.
Behind the scrum, Robinson’s room for manoeuvre was slim, with half-backs Greig Laidlaw and Mike Blair, plus fullback Stuart Hogg, nailed-on starters. With Visser unavailable and Brown unlikely to be pitched straight in, switching Sean Lamont and Ansbro back to their club positions on the wing was hardly a surprise. With Alex Grove, who has been impressive for Worcester this year, and late replacement Alex Dunbar overlooked, the result is that the hard-running youngster Scott finally gets a start alongside his club colleague Nick de Luca.
For once Robinson is playing every member of his back division in their accustomed position, and the result is a unit that looks well-balanced and defensively solid. Whether or not new backs coach Scott Johnson, who has spent the last few months in his home country of Australia, has had any influence here will presumably become clear at a later stage.
Scotland’s only previous tour under Robinson was a winning one to Argentina, Scotland’s first series win in the southern hemisphere. If he is to remain Scotland coach, he desperately needs a re-run of that 2010 triumph with a group of players he candidly concedes are underdogs.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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