Scotland’S kicking coach has memories of Fiji, but they are not particularly happy ones.
Duncan Hodge came off the bench in Scotland’s only defeat by the islanders back in 1998 (a humiliating 51-26 reverse) and some kind soul – one of the team physios has been blamed – somehow got hold of the big sheets that hang in the team room from that very day. Was it a timely warning of what could happen if the preparation is not spot on?
“To be honest that’s not how I saw it, it was just for a laugh. It’s amazing how times have changed. Here we are 14 years on and we have a week before a Test match rather than a day,” says Hodge with smile that might have been relief. “We were in and out [in 1998], there was a lot of travel. We’d come from Australia and the match was close at half-time but my lasting memory was of [Waisali] Serevi playing well in the last 20 minutes and the crowd going wild.”
“That’s Fiji! That’s what you have to be wary off. They love open space and they love turnovers, they love to counter attack. You have to control the ball, keep mistakes to a minimum. It’s no different most games of rugby. Eliminate basic errors and you should be competitive and win games.”
On that day back in 1998, Fiji took full advantage of some less than rigorous preparation by the Scots who were effectively caught with their pants around their ankles. The tourists travelled from Australia just before the match and had just one day to acclimatise to Fiji’s conditions before going into the Test. They were about as underdone as steak tartar.
“I can remember getting in [to Fiji] around midnight or one o’clock and travelling for an hour,” Hodge recalls. “We got up the next day and travelled another three hours and then we had the captain’s run and then the next day we played the Test and we were straight back to Melbourne. So, in the space of 48 hours, we’d had a four/five hour flight, four/five hours in the bus, played a game and then flown back. It probably wasn’t ideal preparation!”
Scotland’s biggest problem right here and now is acclimatising to the Fijian heat and humidity and, with that in mind, the players opted to train in the middle of the afternoon in an effort to mimic Saturday’s testing conditions. The best laid plans of mice and men, as they say, because the sun was replaced before long by cloud and rain, although the thermometer at Nadi’s International School was still edging 30C.
With a sunny day forecast for Saturday’s match, the mercury will be closer to 40 – oh, and this is what is laughably known as their colder season.
“The extra few days [of preparation] definitely helps,” says Hodge, “especially when you are coming to a place that is hot and acclimatising. It makes a big difference.
“The hottest [weather] I can remember playing in was in Toronto and Vancouver and that was extremely hot. It’s just something that we are not used to and having a few days to get used to it definitely helps.”
Hodge’s specialist subject is, of course, kicking, in which case his star pupil must be Greig Laidlaw. While the little stand-off may not be long off the tee, the coach is quick to point out that this Scotland back line has several names who are comfortable putting boot to ball, from Matt Scott in the midfield through full-back Stuart Hogg and even incorporating whatever wingers are called upon. Still it is Laidlaw’s prowess in front of goal that earned Scotland that famous 9-6 win against Australia in Newcastle last week and earned the Jed man the gratitude of Scottish fans the world over.
He had been doing something similar for Edinburgh all season, snatching that crucial Heineken Cup win against London Irish with ten minutes remaining and enjoying a kicking success rate of more than 90 per cent in Europe (closer to 84 per cent in the RaboDirect). As the stakes get higher, the little man just gets better.
“It may have looked like an easy kick but it definitely wasn’t,” said Hodge of Laidlaw’s late, late penalty to secure the historic win against the Aussies. “Kicks to win games are never easy.
“I work with Greig a fair bit but not always with his goalkicking. I think that with some of these guys – and Chris [Paterson] would have been an obvious example – they should know why it’s going right. They know their own technique.”
“The younger guys need a lot more coaching that some of the older guys. Greig is pretty routined. He knows his training loads, he knows what he needs to work on and Chris and Dan [Parks] were the same.”
A goal kick won Scotland the last test but loose kicking from hand could yet lose them the next one, with a young, enthusiastic Fijian side liable to run the ball from all corners of the field, much as they did in 1998.
“You’ve got to be precise,” says the man who knows from personal, painful experience what happens when you aren’t.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 11 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West