Stuart Hogg has always been a player for the big occasion, and few occasions are bigger in an individual’s career than a first and possibly last outing as captain. The Glasgow full-back is aware that men in more central positions are likely to deny him the honour henceforth, with tour skipper Stuart McInally still expected to be fit for next Saturday’s match against Argentina. When it comes to this evening’s clash with the United States, however, there is no doubting the fact that the mercurial 25-year-old Warrior is the ideal choice.
Last week against Canada, Edinburgh lock Grant Gilchrist led a side that overpowered their opponents up front, indulging in few frills on the way to a comfortable 48-10 win. Tonight, by contrast, Scotland will play a faster, more dynamic game against opponents who will put up considerably more resistance than did the Canadians.
With the temperature expected to be around 30 degrees at the 8pm local kick-off time (2am BST), there will be adaptations from the now-familiar high-tempo style espoused by Gregor Townsend – adaptations which could make Hogg’s counter-attacking thrust an even more vital element than normal of the game plan.
“You don’t want to go for 20-odd phases to score a try if you can do it after three or four,” is how Hogg summed up how Scotland aim to play. “We have a game plan and our plan is to play expansive rugby. We’re fit, we’re feeling good, and we’re ready to take on the Americans. This heat is bloody hot, but it’s the same for both teams – some of their players won’t be used to this heat either. We back our fitness to get us over the line. We were speaking to [Glasgow and USA lock] Greg Peterson the other day and he said their boys were struggling with it.
“We’ve adapted well to the weather conditions. We came in on the Monday and said it would be the first and last time we mentioned the weather. Tuesday was tough; Wednesday was better. We’ll walk through and go to the pitch this evening around the time we’re playing.”
While both teams do indeed play under the same sky, the one which adapts to the conditions better will have a far greater chance of ending up on top. For Scotland, that means not only trying to conserve as much energy as possible in terms of avoiding multi-phase play, it also means stretching themselves to the limit in the belief that they are fitter than their opponents.
That will mean some of the pack in particular running themselves into the ground, with blindside flanker Tim Swinson playing a bludgeoning role at the breakdown to allow lighter, sprightlier forwards such as Lewis Carmichael more opportunity to get out and about in attack. Substitutes such as Fraser Brown and David Denton must be ready to compress all their energies into a fairly narrow time span, and it will be interesting to see how much time the inexperienced Murray McCallum is given as a tighthead replacement for Zander Fagerson. Behind the scrum, the link between the two new caps, No 8 Matt Fagerson and No 9 George Horne, is clearly untried at this level, while No 10 Adam Hastings is also starting for the first time. But the three Glasgow backs know each other well, and in Pete Horne at inside centre they have a shrewd rugby thinker and a steadying influence who can guide them through any moments of doubt.
Scotland will certainly have to make better use of their possession than they did last week in Edmonton, but there will be a lot more to this game than merely how well they use their own ball. They will need to be consistently stubborn in defence, not only at close quarters where the Americans have the bulk to make an impact, but also out wide, where they have the speed and the guile to do damage.
“They have some incredible individual players and are playing well as a team,” Hogg added. “We have to be on the money in defence, because they have some very good ball-carriers and an elusive back three that are very good. We want to take our opportunities in attack. We don’t want to be playing too many phases and use up a lot of energy. A big emphasis is picking our heads up, seeing what is in front, and spot the places in front of us. If we can get these big Americans moving around, we believe we are a lot fitter than them.”
If the match is decided on fitness, Scotland will win. If on skill, Scotland should win again – provided, that is, they remain patient when appropriate, and ruthless the second a scoring chance arises.