Experimental Scotland team should still beat Canada but humiliation of 2002 serves as stark reminder

Gregor Townsend’s bold team selection comes with risks

It’s usually thought important to get a tour off to a good start.

Gregor Townsend’s selection of the team to play Canada is what Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey would have called “bold”, meaning rash, even stupid. Still such scepticism is a bit old-fashioned. The team is obviously short of Test Match experience, but the gulf between club and international rugby is not as wide or deep as it used to be.

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The Glasgow players in the squad will have no opposition as skilful, powerful and intense as they have met and beaten in recent weeks in Limerick and Pretoria. Lock Max Williamson and flanker/lock Gregor Brown, both winning their first cap, will certainly respect Canada, but know they have been tested in hotter fires. I had thought that Matt Fagerson, man of the match in Pretoria, like his brother Zander, might have been given rest-and-recuparation time at home, but here he is on the bench and sure to start against what may be more formidable opposition than Canada.

Glasgow's Stafford McDowall will co-captain Scotland against Canada in the opening match of the summer tour in Ottawa. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)Glasgow's Stafford McDowall will co-captain Scotland against Canada in the opening match of the summer tour in Ottawa. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
Glasgow's Stafford McDowall will co-captain Scotland against Canada in the opening match of the summer tour in Ottawa. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

Then Stafford McDowall, co-captain today, was desperately unlucky to miss the knock-out stages of the URC, when Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones, the first-choice Scotland pairing, were available, but nobody did more than McDowall over the season to ensure that Glasgow were in the play-offs.

Still, no matter how well training sessions have gone, this is an experimental team. There are, I think, only nine or ten caps in the back division and no great international experience in the pack either. On the other hand, transition from club rugby, whether in Scotland or in the English Premiership, is less daunting, less of a leap than it used to be. There is no doubt that the introduction of the South African teams to what is now the URC has raised the standard. There were too many soft matches in the Pro14. There are few in the URC. It is not only the Scottish clubs that have benefitted: look at the impressive rise of Benetton.

In theory, Scotland even with what may be called a reserve team should win today, even win comfortably. But what works in theory often falls down in practice. Admittedly, Canadian rugby hasn’t made the progress that was expected twenty or twenty-five years ago. They failed to qualify for the last World Cup. Actually, it has always been a puzzle that, unlike other Commonwealth states like Australia and New Zealand, Canada has never become a rugby power. There were difficulties of course, the game being played principally in Ontario in the East and British Columbia in the West with nothing much in between. Yet other countries have had similar difficulties, Australia obviously, while even in leading rugby countries there have been rugby-free areas and in most rugby has never been as popular as football.

Still all tours are demanding. Just over twenty years ago – in June 2002 – Scotland lost 23-26 to Canada in Vancouver. That certainly wasn’t a great Scotland team, but they had lost to England and France at Murrayfield and to Ireland in Dublin but won in both Rome and Cardiff. Still they were expected to beat Canada and indeed scored three tries to one. But they gave away far too many penalties and let the match slip. Still, there were some very good players in the team: Chris Paterson, Brendan Laney, Mike Blair, Gordon Bulloch, Nathan Hines, Jason White, Simon Taylor. They had had three provincial matches and won them all but this was described, not unfairly, as “a humiliating defeat.” The Canadian side included a few amateurs. On the other hand it had players from leading French and Welsh clubs, their captain, Alan Charron, who played for Dax, still a power in the French game, and there were a couple from Stade Francais. All the same, Scotland, coached by Ian McGeechan, should have won comfortably, as they did a week later when they beat the USA by more than forty points in San Francisco. These two matches serve as a reminder that Summer tours can be chancey things. Let’s hope this one isn’t.

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