Rugby World Cup: Sione Tuipulotu and Finn Russell plot route to tryline as Scotland seek to avoid a Pittodrie repeat
The defeat at Pittodrie in 2012 made headlines around the world and prompted Andy Robinson to resign as head coach the following day. A similar result in Nice on Sunday would register even higher on rugby’s Richter scale and bring to an end Scotland’s World Cup campaign before it ever really got going. The pressure is all on Gregor Townsend’s side and the head coach didn’t underplay the significance of their second Pool B match. “It’s our knockout stage now,” he said this week. “If we lose a game, we’re out the tournament.”
It has been a long two weeks since the Scots were defeated 18-3 by South Africa in their opener. All 19 other nations have played in the interim, some of them twice, while the Scots have been stewing on the sidelines. It felt like the tournament was going on without them but that will change over the next two weeks. Six days after facing Tonga, Scotland will head north to play Romania in Lille. The fervent hope is that they will have two wins under their belts, ideally with bonus points, when they go into their final group match against Ireland in Paris on October 7.
To do that Scotland will need to rediscover the route to the tryline. They came into this tournament with a well earned reputation for attacking prowess but found themselves snuffed out by South Africa in Marseille, with stand-off Finn Russell unable to bring his backline into play. Townsend’s side struggled to cope with the speed of the Springboks’ defence and there was much soul searching in the Scotland camp in the aftermath of their first try-less game since 2020. Sione Tuipulotu, one of the chief creatives in midfield, admitted it had been a chastening experience.
“I’ve had many conversations with Finn since the game, and we were so frustrated that we just couldn’t get things going - considering we are a team who quite often do get things going,” said the Glasgow centre. “Yes, South Africa put pressure on us, but we have turned the page on that and are focused on Tonga and how we can get our game going against them. For me that’s about looking after the breakdown and when we do have the ball, carrying it with aggression. We know they will tackle with aggression so we have to meet it with full force.”
Rory Darge, one of Scotland’s breakdown specialists, agreed and was careful to note that although Tonga had lost 59-16 to Ireland last weekend there was enough evidence in the opening quarter to suggest it was an area of the game in which the islanders will be fiercely competitive.
“We’ve looked back at that Ireland game and they got a lot of turnovers against a side who really pride themselves on the breakdown work and are arguably one of the best in the world,” said Darge. “That’s been a massive focus point for us, making sure we get the breakdown side of things right. That’ll allow our attack to go, if we stack those multiple rucks. Everyone says physicality is always a key word against Tonga. That’ll be big for us.”
Townsend has opted for Chris Harris as Tuipulotu’s centre partner on Sunday, one of four changes made by the head coach, and Tuipulotu credits the Gloucester man for helping him with the defensive side of his game.
“I’ve played a lot of rugby with Chris,” he said. “In the early days when I was getting my first couple of caps for Scotland I was playing under his wing, and I’ve learned a lot from Chris, both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively. Steve [Tandy, defence coach] will tell you that when I first came to Scotland, I was a bit of a rogue defender and I learned a lot from Steve and especially Chris. He’s always put his arm around me and helped me, and I feel very comfortable with him alongside me, and we’re going to go out there and have a great performance together.”
Harris’ inclusion means Huw Jones drops to the bench along with Darcy Graham and Pierre Schoeman, who have been replaced in the starting XV by Kyle Steyn and Rory Sutherland, respectively. The fourth change sees Scott Cummings come in for Grant Gilchrist who drops out of the 23.
George Horne and Ewan Ashman, both recovered from head injuries, are also among the substitutes and Townsend expects his star-studded bench to play an important role in the second half. Ideally, they will be coming on to secure the bonus-point win but any victory will have to be earned against opponents bolstered by the inclusion of four former All Blacks. Full-back Charles Piutau, centre Malakai Fekitoa, scrum-half Augustine Pulu and No 8 Vaea Fifita have all taken advantage of changes to World Rugby’s eligibility rules to declare for Tonga. So too has the 38-cap former Australia international lock Adam Coleman who is in line for his Tonga debut off the bench.
Intriguingly, he is likely to come up against Scotland No 8 Jack Dempsey – four years after they went to the World Cup together as Australia players. The pair were part of the Wallabies squad in Japan but have both now switched allegiance, something that is allowed if they have a family link to the new country and have not played internationally for three years.
Dempsey – who won 14 Aussie caps – pledged his future to Scotland, the country of his grandfather’s birth, ahead of the autumn series last year. Coleman has switched to the country his late father Pau’u Lolohea-Afeaki used to captain. “It’s a full circle moment for me and my family,” said Coleman. “The reason I started playing rugby was because of my old man so to wear the same fabric that he’s worn will be pretty special.”
Scotland v Tonga, Rugby World Cup Pool B, Nice, 4.45pm BST. TV: live on STV/ITV.
Scotland: Blair Kinghorn; Kyle Steyn, Chris Harris, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe; Finn Russell, Ben White; Rory Sutherland, George Turner, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Scott Cummings. Jamie Ritchie (capt), Rory Darge, Jack Dempsey. Replacements: Ewan Ashman, Pierre Schoeman, WP Nel, Sam Skinner, Matt Fagerson, George Horne, Huw Jones, Darcy Graham.
Tonga: Charles Piutau; Solomone Kata, Malakai Fekitoa, Pita Ahki, Afusipa Taumoepeau; William Havili, Augustine Pulu; Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, Paula Ngauamo, Ben Tameifuna (capt), Halaleva Fifita, Sam Lousi, Tanginoa Halaifonua, Sione Talitui, Vaea Fifita. Replacements: Sam Moli, Tau Koloamatangi, Sosefo Apikotoa, Adam Coleman, Semisi Paea, Sione Vailanu, Sonatane Takulua, Patrick Pellegrini.
Referee: Karl Dickson (England).
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