NEWCASTLE-upon-Tyne was effectively Scottish from 1139 to 1157 during the Border Wars and it will be again today as an expected 100,000 Scots descend on the great city of England’s north-east for this afternoon’s Pool B crunch against Samoa.
Henry II may have prised Northumbria back from Malcolm IV almost a millennium ago but even today there is probably no English city where a Scot feels more at home and, hopefully, the bars will be drunk dry in celebration of the victory needed to secure a place in the World Cup quarter-finals.
Last weekend a huge influx of South African supporters blunted Scottish hopes to turn Tyneside tartan but today will be different. Given that the total population of Samoa is roughly similar to that of Gateshead, there will be no doubting who the home team is at St James’ Park.
As the depression of another footballing failure to qualify for a major finals sinks in, Vern Cotter’s men can lift the spirits by reaching the last eight of the World Cup. And do it they certainly should.
Scotland is no longer a rugby nation that can take anything for granted but anything less than the victory required today would be a crushing disappointment. Since the ignominy of a Six Nations whitewash took the shine off early promise under Cotter, everything has been building towards this afternoon’s showdown with the Pacific islanders and the day of judgment has arrived with Scotland seeming to be in possession of all the cards.
The summer warm-up Tests showed encouraging signs and, compared with other nations, Scotland have been blessed, almost miraculously, so far when it comes to injuries. The luckless Grant Gilchrist is gone and there has been, as you would expect, some bumps and bruises along the way but Cotter could barely have dreamt of having his squad in this robust a shape heading into today.
First-choice stand-off Finn Russell is back after an ankle injury, the impressive John Hardie also returns to bring his tough-as-teak tackling to what is sure to be a spicy breakdown. Hooker Ross Ford and centre Matt Scott, the Edinburgh duo who were named in the side on Thursday subject to completing return to play protocols, were passed fit yesterday.
Unlike four years ago, the only occasion in which Scotland have failed to reach the knockout stages, momentum has built from the start with good, try-laden performances in the early games before admittedly being slightly stalled by a reality check at the hands of the wounded Springboks a week ago.
And then there is Samoa, who we expected to be pitching up for a shoot-out but have found themselves firing blanks and are already a busted flush. All the talk of them still having pride to play for and that being out of the tournament could actually make them more dangerous is the understandable and correct professional response. But, of course, it must take a crucial few per cent off their motivation and has to be another bonus in the Scottish ledger.
That said, it is a painful truth that following Scotland’s progress in the sporting arena comes with a health warning and behind even the most benign looking corners disaster often lurks. Scotland must execute well, avoid any complacency, front up physically and impose their greater desire for victory on the Samoans.
Scotland have gone into these do-or-die final pool games in the past three tournaments and it has always gone down to the wire. The difference between those sides and this one can be summed up in one word – tries.
Scotland have, in Russell, a playmaker who, shock horror, actually makes play and there are proven finishers throughout the threequarter line.
Backs coach Duncan Hodge said yesterday: “We have scored some tries, but there’s a big job to be done before that. That’s what happened in the first two games – when you’ve got a platform up front and you get good ball, then we have got some players that can score tries.”
The Samoans have threats too, with the likes of Kahn Fotuali’i and Tim Nanai-Williams capable of wreaking havoc. Scotland’s defence has been good in the past half a dozen games and will need to be again.
One blot on Scotland’s copybook has been the sluggish starts in all three games. Hodge knows it must be rectified today.
He said: “Against Japan we started well for the first 20, and then, fair enough, they took over for the next 20 minutes. In terms of answers, no, I think we just have to be absolutely clear on what we’re trying to do.
“We know what Samoa are going to bring. We’ve got to get our game right, but we also have to be adaptable to the way they’re going to play as well. With every game of international rugby you set your stuff out, but it doesn’t always pan out like that.
“Possibly in those two games we haven’t adapted. Twenty minutes in against South Africa we hadn’t had any ball, we kicked a couple away. As coaches and players we’re saying we should have adapted to that quicker. We should have recognised the problems and solved the issues. For us as a team that’s what it’s about – international rugby’s a tough place and we have to adapt slightly quicker.”
Nothing is guaranteed in sport and pressure can do funny things but, after some painful years for Scottish rugby and a difficult few days for Scottish sport, a road to redemption is there for the taking today.