Australia v Scotland: Powerful hosts pose an ominous test for Scots

THE highlight of Andy Robinson’s three-year career with Scotland probably arrived not long after the little English coach did. In only his second game he broke a long 16-game losing streak against the Wallabies by inspiring a brave rearguard action at Murrayfield.

Matt Giteau obliged by slicing his late conversion attempt wide of the posts and Scotland held out for a famous 9-8 win.

It seems like another era altogether now because Robinson looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders once again, the haunted/hunted look that he bore in his final days with England may not be a constant but nor is it ever very far from his expressive face.

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There were tears in the dressing room after the last Australia Test but they were the result of relief. Any tears in the Scotland dressing room recently have been born of pure frustration. After seven straight losses Robinson would settle for another one-point win over the Aussies today in Newcastle’s Ausgrid Stadium but it doesn’t appear very likely.

The full-strength Scottish side might have troubled this patchwork Wallabies squad but in the enforced absence of so many players Robinson’s team looks underpowered.

Big Jim Hamilton is sitting on the naughty step back home and skipper in waiting Kelly Brown is still not fully recovered. Allan Jacobsen has been given a summer holiday as has Edinburgh’s find of the season Grant Gilchrist. David Denton remains the biggest loss of all because Scotland are playing two openside flankers in the third row of the scrum while Australia will field two muscular ball carriers in Dave Dennis and Scott Higginbotham. Rob Moffat lost his job at Edinburgh for doing something similar but Robinson has a ready explanation.

“The reason for playing John Barclay [at eight] is that we have to contest the breakdown and we’ve got to put Australia under a huge amount of pressure in that area. That’s the big focus there for us.

“We’ve got to have a go at them. Put pressure on Will Genia but also slow their ball down and the only way to do that is by playing Barclay and Ross Rennie together, who I think are our best players over the ball. We’ve got to create a little bit of mayhem at the breakdown but we need to be really accurate inside our half, accurate defensively and accurate when we have the ball, which means not getting turned over; something that we didn’t do well in the Six Nations. We turned a lot of ball over when we were carrying it and running into touch or due to our poor tackle accuracy in our half. If we sort that out then that puts us in a good position for us to put pressure on Australia.”

That may be the case but if the breakdown is the key to this game then Scotland’s lightweight forward pack are in danger of being blasted right off the ball by a powerful Aussie eight who probably have a stone-per-man advantage across the board. The battle of the number sevens between David Pocock and Ross Rennie will be one for the specialists to savour but the Aussie skipper can call upon the heavy cavalry for support, whereas Scotland’s own poacher is in danger of being swamped by a deluge of yellow shirts any time he gets his mitts near the opposition ball.

The legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi summed up the issue succinctly as usual. “Ballroom dancing,” he opined, “is a contact sport. [American] Football is a hitting sport.” Rugby is fast going the same way and Scotland look like middleweights stepping into the ring against heavyweights, and contenders at that. In the absence of Denton, who is going to punch holes in the Wallaby defensive line?

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“Obviously it’s vital that Richie Gray and Ross Ford step up as our carriers,” counters Robinson. “Ryan Grant can carry and we must bring in Sean Lamont off the wing and use Matt Scott and Joe Ansbro to carry as well. We’ve got carriers but they’ve got to put in a big shift.”

But it’s easier to put in a big shift if you are a big man. Almost everywhere the coach has opted for skill and speed over strength and size. He has selected a dry-ball, handling, running side with the weather experts forecasting heavy rain to resume for the match itself after the skies cleared briefly for the captain’s run on Monday.

Ryan Grant is preferred over Jon Welsh, Matt Scott over Graeme Morrison who is left kicking his heels at home, John Barclay over, well, Robinson’s options are limited in the enforced absence of Denton but it’s a worry. The Scottish halfbacks are especially slight and you don’t need the tactical nous of Lombardi, or Robbie Deans for that matter, to send those big breakaways barrelling down the nine/ten channel at every opportunity.

“That’s the work of players inside and outside who are working hard to protect them [Blair and Laidlaw]”, says Robinson. “They have to get up and make tackles. It’s about the defensive line not isolating anybody.

If we can get the inside support working hard then they won’t be isolated. That’s playing and getting up, [maintaining] a really tough work rate, to get up and get fifteen men on their feet.”

Where the Scots may have a small advantage is the lineout, which they will target relentlessly with Richie Gray and Al Kellock well used to working in tandem for Glasgow. They will need to nick a few Australian throws and then put the young tighthead Dan Palmer under pressure come scrum time. It’s asking an awful lot of Ryan Grant on his test debut but Robinson backs his man to the hilt.

“Ryan got his place in the Glasgow team at the end of the season thanks to his scrummaging,” says Robinson. “He is a very good scrummager.”

Grant is a good scrummager but the Glasgow man is not especially big or particularly powerful when put up against some of the behemoths he will face at 10:30am this morning and the same may be true of too many other Scots.