Vern Cotter knows a lot about Georgian rugby from his time in France, where so many Georgian internationals ply their trade, and has a healthy respect for its tough abrasive character. That knowledge and respect have obviously influenced his selection for today’s game. Young Magnus Bradbury made an impressive start to what is likely to be a long international career, but he has been replaced by Rob Harley, a player for whom the term battle-hardened might have been coined. The skilful John Barclay has given way to Ryan Wilson, who often gives the impression that he would pick a fight with himself if he found that the room was empty.
Cotter’s ability to adjust his selection according to the opposition gives an indication of where we now stand. On the one hand it’s encouraging that there is sufficient strength in depth, and range of choice, to make this possible. On the other, it’s not something that the best teams feel the need to do. The All Blacks expect the opposition to worry about them.
The Australian game left us happy with the performance, disappointed with the result. It was perhaps the other way round last week. There was much of promise, but too many things didn’t click, and the first half of the match was very scrappy. One had the impression that the referee was tiresomely pernickety about the set scrum, and far too lax in his policing of the breakdown. This meant that both sides were trying to play off slow ball, scrappily delivered. So there was very little front-foot rugby, and the Scottish back division hardly had a chance to fire. One hopes to see the big Georgian forwards moved about today, which means, for instance, delivering off-the-top ball from the line-out rather than setting up to maul it forward.
One other lesson from last week: drop-goals still matter. There are moments in most matches when each successive attack is being stifled more easily than the one before, and momentum is being lost. The drop-goal then offers the best way to keep the score moving. Nobody scores more tries than the All Blacks, but Dan Carter has never disdained the drop-goal. England wouldn’t have won the World Cup in 2003 if Jonny Wilkinson hadn’t spent countless hours practising his drop-kicking off either foot. Ronan O’Gara’s ability to drop a goal won many matches for Munster and Ireland. Russell kicks adroitly and intelligently from hand, but at present when he lines up a drop-goal attempt I never think it is going to go over.
Georgia have just beaten Samoa. So we know they are pretty good. Their progress is renewing chatter about the future shape of the Six Nations and the possibility of promotion and relegation. There’s little – perhaps no – appetite among the Six for such a change. This isn’t just a dog-in-the manger attitude. With each team playing only five matches, relegation seems a harsh sentence for a bad season. But there is a case for admitting Georgia and making the Six Nations Seven. Apart from recognising Georgia’s progress, this would remove one anomaly from the tournament: the fact that in alternate seasons a team plays three away games and only two at home. The old Five Nations was better balanced because everybody had two home, two away, matches.
Italy’s defeat of South Africa was their best result for years; a great day for Sergio Parisse and their other experienced players who have suffered so many defeats and never given up. Admittedly South Africa are in dire straits. They have made 12 changes for today’s game in Cardiff. Not even the Scottish selectors in our darkest years went that far. Perhaps a combination of pride and desperation will enable them to get the better of a Welsh side also seemingly short of both confidence and ideas, but the form-book might suggest that Wales will beat South Africa more easily than they beat Japan a week ago. This is not a sentence I would ever have thought to find myself writing. But there it is: Japan played lovely rugby last week and were unlucky to lose in Cardiff. World rugby is changing, and for the better.