THIS year’s Rugby World Cup is a little like the FA Cup story that is wheeled out every year with the plucky underdog fighting a losing battle against innumerable odds and some buff playground bully before exiting the competition stage left, tail between the legs.
The trouble is the underdog rarely causes an upset in rugby, Japan the glaring exception.
Apart from the Brave Blossoms’ brilliant win over South Africa, the applecart has remained resiliently upright. Italy nearly slipped up against Canada but no banana. Tonga had their foot on the All Blacks’ throat but only for a half. Italy gave Ireland a fright but lost and Romania did the same to Italy with three late tries but only after the game was already decided.
Bear that in mind when weighing up Scotland’s chances of unsettling the reigning Rugby Championship title holders on Sunday. Australia are ranked second in the world, Scotland sit seven places below them. This match is akin to Scotland playing the USA who sit seven places below them. Oh, hang on, they just did, and it didn’t end well for the Eagles. None of the above, though, can prevent Scotland centre Mark Bennett from hugging the underdog tag to his bosom like a long lost lover.
“It tends to be the way it goes. We always seem to be up against it and everyone does write us off but I think the Scottish culture thrives on that,” he said at the team’s base in Surrey.
“I’m looking forward to it, it’s a huge opportunity for us. We’ve got nothing to lose because no one is expecting us to do well bar the squad itself. So yeah, let’s get into them.”
Bennett has been a revelation in the last few matches, although not everything that he revealed is going to warm the cockles of head coach Vern Cotter’s cold heart. First up the Cumnock man displayed his eye for the try line and his ability to pick the right angle to get him there with a brace of tries against Japan in Kingsholm. Against Samoa last week he revealed another side to his rugby character, the defensive frailties that have faithfully followed him around like Greyfriars Bobby. He gave the islanders too much time and space in the outside channels and allowed his opposite number, Rey Lee-Lo, to run the show, at least for that coruscating first 40 minutes.
Was he confident, one confident journalist asked, that those defensive holes had been plugged for Sunday’s encounter against what is arguably the best attacking team in world rugby?
“The Samoans came out and really threw the ball about,” replied Bennett. “They were just playing in a way we maybe weren’t quite expecting. They were a lot more loose than we expected and they really took the game to us. That was the best rugby they have played by far and they put us under a lot of pressure.
“We didn’t help ourselves with some of our decisions and some of the ways we set up, but we know where we went wrong and also know that we’re a better side than that. There are no worries.
“The main thing was getting the win. We knew that doing that meant we were through so even though we were under pressure we managed to do what we needed to do.”
You fancy that the Aussies will be a better match for a Scottish backline that fields plenty of cut and thrust but little in the way of size and strength. Just as Scotland have just one basher in Matt Scott, and he never looks wholly convincing in the role, so the Aussies field Tevita Kuridrani, their go-to man for go-forward ball, in the 13 channel where the 16-stone 6ft 4in Fijian, a cousin to Nemani Nadolo, who turned out for Fiji at the World Cup, will find himself facing Bennett. The slight Scot is used to David and Goliath mismatches – he points out that he is always up against someone bigger – but Sunday may prove the exception because at least the Wallabies field one person of similar size. Inside centre Matt Giteau, who wins his 100th cap today, is slight like the Scot and razor sharp with it.
Two years ago, Glasgow travelled to Toulon in the European Cup with high hopes which were swamped by a tidal wave of red shirts, most of which were steaming towards the Glasgow try line. Toulon were herded brilliantly that day by Giteau, who scored two tries himself as the French giants were home and hosed by half time.
“I think they are a smart team,” says Bennett of the Wallabies. “They play some exciting rugby and expansive rugby. Giteau at 12 is an outstanding player. I played against him for Glasgow against Toulon and he was excellent. I’m looking forward to that battle. They have a big man at 13 [Kuridrani] who will always try to get the over the gain line. It’s a challenge for us, but I’m always up against someone who’s bigger then me so I’m used to it now.
“We’re going to go out and attack and take the game to them. The only way we are going to beat them is by going at them. We’re not going to win by sitting off and trying to stay in the game till the latter stages. We want to go at them though I’ve no doubt they will be saying exactly the same.”
AUSSIES RULE FOR SCOTLAND
If Scotland spring a surprise and beat the Wallabies on Sunday, the Australians will only have themselves themselves to blame in a very literal sense. This Scotland squad boasts four influential Australian coaches who should give them an insight into the workings of the opposition mind.
The SRU’s Director of Rugby has been keeping a low profile of late but his substantial frame was spotted on the sidelines at St James’ Park and he is sure to throw his tuppence into the mix ahead of Sunday’s game.
Scotland’s defensive guru cut his coaching teeth at the Queensland Reds, whom he helped to the Super Rugby title in 2011. He must have been frustrated at the Scots’ porous defence last week – they missed something like 30 per cent of all tackles against Samoa, so a big improvement is needed to keep the Wallabies at bay.
The man from Wagga Wagga has helped the Scottish lineout in particular, although they did conceded one try to a driven maul against Japan and the Springboks made ground there, too, which the Aussies will have noted. In the absence of Jonny Gray and Ross Ford the Scots will be vulnerable in this area.
Scotland’s strength and conditioning coach was born in Australia, although he considers himself “a Kiwi by choice”, and he did the same job for the Wallabies for about a year. His influence is less pronounced now since all the hard yakka was done months ago.