IT IS a day of firsts. The first time that Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park ground has hosted an international rugby fixture and the first time that a tier one nation has played a Test match on a fully artificial pitch; something New Zealand decline to do.
The change in venue takes Scotland out of their Murrayfield comfort zone and it may have been done with one eye on the World Cup as well as for evangelical reasons of spreading the rugby gospel. Scotland must play their pool matches in Gloucester, Leeds and Newcastle so Kilmarnock will give the squad a small taste of life on the road.
That may also explain why Vern Cotter has gone with the strongest available squad rather than risk resting some bruised bodies after two car-crash encounters with Argentina and the All Blacks. Come the World Cup, Scotland’s key game is expected to be against Samoa, another set of hard-hitting islanders. They will be the fourth match for Scotland, who face them exactly one week after being softened up by the Springboks. Any sore body that gets bumped off a tackle today is a luxury Cotter can’t afford next October.
Should Scotland lose today they cannot say they did not receive fair warning. The Tongans beat Scotland two years ago at Aberdeen despite conceding three yellow cards and 23 penalties. The visitors secured around 40 per cent of territory and possession but still scored two tries to nil. The Scots eschewed seven kicks at goal in the first half, coughed up 17 turnovers and made a meagre 82 per cent of their tackles. What lessons did they learn in defeat?
“I think that day we had set piece dominance but we didn’t capitalise on the possession we had and the breakdown was a mess that year so there are areas we need to focus on today,” responds Scotland assistant coach Duncan Hodge.
“They [Tonga] are very good in broken field, they are very good at turnovers, that’s something we have to be wary of. They have a potent set of backs, well, they have guys who can carry ball all over the pitch. Certainly the back three are proven finishers, proven guys with the ball in hand. We need to play sensible rugby. We need to play to our strengths and not to theirs.”
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Most important of all, the Scots must tackle the man with the ball. That may sound like common sense but two years ago Tim Visser bought a dummy from Fetu’u Vainikolo before the Tongan left everyone for dead to score a 70-metre try that went a long way towards deciding that match. The same winger lines up today although, for better or worse, the big Dutchman is on the opposite wing to Vainikolo this time.
Johnnie Beattie comes into the middle of the back row with a point to prove after watching Adam Ashe’s physical contribution to the opening two matches, while Sean Lamont is retained in the midfield. Geoff Cross starts in place of the injured Euan Murray and such is the dearth of tighthead props in the country that the Scotland bench does without. Alastair Dickinson would presumably move across in extremis but Cotter will cross his fingers that Cross is as durable as he looks beneath all that face fur. The tighthead will be blowing hard if he does go the 80.
A plastic pitch, two teams who want to attack with the ball in hand and a weather report that is more South of France than South of Scotland all point to a helkter-skelter game played at fast forward pace. Not if Hodge can help it.
“I think that probably plays more into their hands than it does ours,” says the backs’ coach. “We have certain structures that we need to stick to and that is what will win us the Test match. That’s what we are about tomorrow. It’s about winning a Test match and that’s been fairly clear to the guys all week.
“I think we need to shut down their space. They like space to play in and offload and step as we all do but that’s their bread and butter but we have to put pressure on them, we have to impose ourselves on the game and put pressure on them.
“There is a big emphasis on defence and putting pressure on their attack. They are a very good side and if we let them play they have the potential to score points. The flip side is that we have to use what possession we get really well and we have to play to our strengths and their weaknesses.”
Expect Scotland to look for structure, variation in attack between forwards and backs, while Finn Russell is tasked with keeping the ball away from the Tongan danger men. If the flyhalf kicks, the ball should go dead or the Scots need to be contesting possession when it lands. Expect plenty of start-up plays with Alex Dunbar and Sean Lamont charging at the Tongan midfield, not with any great expectation of breaching it, but simply to tie down the opposition backrow, especially the islanders’ standout skipper Nili Latu.
“Little things have changed and there have been clips of Tonga [from 2012] this week, we haven’t watched the whole thing, and there are lessons to be learned,” says Hodge when quizzed again about the last time these two teams met. “We can’t perform as we did two years ago and expect to win. It doesn’t work like that.”
On a day of firsts, Scotland will surely ensure that their first chance of revenge does not go to waste.
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