Winter has arrived in New Zealand, after a fashion. Officially, the Queen’s Birthday Holiday, celebrated at the weekend just past, marks the turning of the seasons. Here at Paihia, in the sub-tropical Far North, though, the lush vegetation remains unsullied by snow or sleet. The temperature is the same as the June average for the UK, ensuring that the Scottish rugby squad enjoys the smoothest of acclimatisation.
This idyllic resort, less than an hour’s drive from Whangarei, has everything you need for a first-rate seaside holiday. It is now received wisdom that
rugby tours should begin with a period of relative isolation such as this – Ian McGeechan’s 1997 Lions, for instance, kicked off with a week in the luxury
of Umhlanga Rocks outside Durban – but there is a downside to the practice. Everyone can become too relaxed, and forget the real reason they are there – to win rugby matches.
Such forgetfulness may have been one of the reasons
Scotland’s 1998 tour to Australia and Fiji got off to a dreadful start with the 51-26 defeat in Suva. The trip to the South Pacific island followed a
four-day sojourn in Queensland’s Gold Coast, where it was evident, at least in retrospect, that the atmosphere encouraged Scotland to underestimate the task awaiting them in their opening game.
Fortunately, any temptation to do the same this time round was probably dispelled yesterday, when the Northland Vikings team was announced. The local select, which meets Scotland on Friday evening New Zealand time, is rich in talent and experience, including
several former All Blacks as well as Super 12 players.
Many of the Vikings team are familiar to Gordon Simpson, who played as a schoolboy on the ground where Scotland trained yesterday. “They’ve gone for a mix of Super 12 and up-and-coming youngsters who are possible All Blacks of the future,” the back-row player explained. “It’s a good test for us; a chance to make a statement right away.
“If we can get off to a good start the New Zealand public and even the New Zealand team will take us more seriously, and give us the credit that we
deserve. Hopefully they are
underestimating us, because that’s when we play our best.”
With a series of matches to promote, Sky TV are certainly not underestimating the tourists. “The mighty Scotland” is how they are being billed, in an advert which includes footage of the Calcutta Cup
victory in April.
Yet, while there is no doubt a genuine affection for Scotland here, Simpson detects a certain disdain: an assumption that, come the Tests, the All Blacks will be held in check for 40 or 50 minutes before pulling clear.
He also feels, however, that anyone here who saw the second-half performance against the Barbarians should understand the kind of rugby Scotland are trying to play.
“We did well as a team and proved to people out here that we will not be a pushover, and that they should give us some respect,” Simpson added, before assessing his own performance in last Wednesday’s game at Murrayfield.
“It was good getting back to No7 again – I hadn’t played there at that level since
Australia. The first few minutes
I was blowing out. I was a wreck. But I got my second wind. I made a few mistakes, but I felt the confidence coming back.”
The notion of a Gordon
Simpson lacking in confidence is a difficult one to grasp, but the former Wellington player does have a certain sensitivity which his bluff manner only partially conceals. For the
moment, at least, he does not find it strange to be a foreign tourist in his native land, but he accepted it may hit home once battle commences.
“To me it’s a tour. It’s about getting on with the business that we’re here for. It might just hit me suddenly when I get on the paddock and get a few snide remarks from other New Zealanders, but you take that on the chin and accept it.
“I made a decision two and a half years ago to go to Scotland, gain honours over there and make my family proud. I’ve achieved that and I’ve no regrets at all even if a few New Zealanders probably think I’m a traitor.”
With five New Zealand-born men in the squad of 35, that
issue will arise again and again over the coming weeks.
How they deal with it will have a significant bearing on Scotland’s fortunes. For the
moment, though, Simpson’s only worry is of a more trivial kind, and concerns the time he played here a dozen years ago.
“I had had a few drinks the night before and unfortunately had a bit of a chunder on Paihia. I was 17.
“I hope no-one recognises me.” Maybe he should wear a ginger wig as a disguise.
The training session yesterday signalled the end of a light opening programme for the tourists. A short walk on the beach was the only group activity after arrival on Saturday, while yesterday lunchtime the squad received the traditional welcome by the district’s Maori
elders at the Waitangi National Reserve, where the treaty which founded New Zealand was signed 160 years ago.
Northland Vikings (v Scotland in Whangarei, Friday, kick-off 8.35am BST): W Johnston; P Steinmetz, J Wilson, S McLeod, H Taylor; T Monaghan, S Devine; C Barrell, J Hammond, T Knight, C Jack, G Taylor, S Vahafolou, J Collins, X Rush. Subs: M Robinson, J Going, T Miller, J Ross, M White, C Reichelmann, H Peita.