For all their emergence as a rugby nation, Japan were a team Scotland expected to beat and they did. The second match only the most optimistic, or unaware of Springboks’ rise this year, believed would swing the Scots’ way, but forecasts for this third and final autumn Test with Australia hover tantalisingly in the air and, for most who troop into the national stadium this evening, will determine whether the year ends with promise or disappointment.
There is no doubting the favourites come the unusual 6pm kick-off time. The Wallabies may have started the season with a Test series defeat to the British and Irish Lions and lost home and away to New Zealand and South Africa, so sit on the precipice of a first-ever sixth defeat in the same year. But today’s visitors are ranked fourth in the world, five places above Scotland, and while the number of missing Test performers has rattled past the 15-mark, and Scotland’s injured first choices to around seven or eight, there is a clear difference in the nations’ strength in depth.
Wallaby coaches have complained in the past at the lack of playing pool they have to choose from, but the current chief Ewen Mckenzie admitted this week that he felt for his opposite number Scott Johnson, who, in a country with just 20 per cent of his population, had two pro teams and a bunch of exiles to draw a competitive side from, to his five and host of exiles with top foreign clubs if he wanted them.
But, that mattered little in 2009 and 2012 and Scotland come into tonight’s Hopetoun Cup battle having beaten Australia in their last two meetings. Not since Andy Irvine celebrated his 50th cap for Scotland in Brisbane in 1982 did the Scots savour a three-in-a-row over a southern hemisphere nation, though Jim Telfer’s class of 1968 were the first to achieve it.
Australia have become tighter with the world’s best in the past 30 years and though they have been replaced by England in the top three this year McKenzie appears to have a better grasp of what it takes to turn Wallabies into world-beaters than did his predecessor, the Kiwi Robbie Deans. After the Ballymore win of 1982, a team also coached by Telfer, the Aussies won 16 Test meetings on the trot. A sterling forwards display and unstinting defensive performance at Murrayfield in 2009 – and late Matt Giteau conversion miss – finally brought that domination to an end in a 9-8 triumph and in the stunningly wet and windy Australian version of Newcastle the Ross Ford-led side clung on in the face of a monsoon to win 9-6 last ‘summer’.
Johnson has been quick to nail his colours to the mast this week and make it clear that while he speaks with a strong Aussie twang, and comes out with wonderfully humorous lines that could only make sense in the head of someone from down under – this week’s classic was ‘when the tide goes out we’ll see who’s swimming naked’ – he knows what result tonight would gladden the heart.
“It’s pretty simple for me,” he said. “The emotional attachment I had this week was watching the cricket last night, but when it comes to rugby I’d like to think that while I’ve got plenty of ills, yeah, I’m passionate about the people I coach, and this is personal; it’s us together. All other allegiances fall by the wayside. I’ve got a good bunch of lads and I’m trying to bring a group through together here. We have the potential to be a fearsome forward pack for example, they’ll grow in time and we’ll get the critical mass in our forward pack that puts us over the line and says we’re a commanding forward pack, but we’ve got to start somewhere.
“I’m really excited about where this squad could finish. Right now my nationality is with this team. The cricket’s a different thing. But that [2012 win in Newcastle] was my first time involved with them. I met the guys off the plane when they got there at six o’clock in the morning and I walked them from Coogee to Bondai, had breakfast there, went on the ferry and then we went off on our journey together. The gods smiled on us with the cloud cover, but it was a perfect way for us to start.”
But can they add to that memory here tonight? The answer is ‘yes’, if Scotland have the ability to deny the Australians regular and quick ball, by taking on a pack that is under-rated in many ways and secure themselves good possession from scrum and lineout, ask questions in attack and, crucially, shut them down before the likes of half-backs Will Genia and Quade Cooper, and quick and skilful backs Christian Leali’ifano at outside centre and full-back Israel Folau stretch their legs.
By shutting down that means for 80 minutes as I would argue that not even New Zealand have the ability to strike so dangerously from nothing in the way that this back line can. Italy thought they were in a game two weeks ago, and they were, but a sleight of hand here, change of pace there, and they were staring at 50 points. Ireland were a touch fortunate not to lose by a similar margin in Dublin last week.
“They are assembling a good team,” acknowledged Johnson, “and the more time their 15 [Folau] gets to play the game the more you’ll see a world-class player. He can do things that others can’t. And when their halves [Cooper and Genia] string games together and are in form they are as good as anyone.
“Australia have never had a problem putting points on anybody and they’re improving. That win in Dublin was good and there were more tries out on that field, and while you can point the finger at Ireland I’d point it at the team that did the deed. They’re an emerging side so this will be a good Test.”
A good Test? It could be an ominous test for an under-strength Scottish team. Johnson talks of possessing a back-line that can score from anywhere, but this one is missing Stuart Hogg, Tim Visser, Alex Dunbar and Matt Scott while flanker Ross Rennie is another injured player you would like firing into the Wallabies tonight. Johnson stresses the need for better strength in depth and in some ways that helps to deflect from the bare win:loss scenario that can never be the entire gauge of success and failure in Scottish rugby, but he wants dearly to finish this year with victory against his home nation. That is why he has resisted throwing more new faces into the mix against extremely skilful players that ritually humiliate defenders not up to Test speed and awareness.
As for how he does that and repeats the 2009 and 2012 affairs, he said: “I wasn’t there for the first one, but in the second one we spoke about limiting Australia. Defence is such a key. Most of the time you play Australia you know there are points in them, and we’ve got to limit that so that we’re not chasing the scoreboard.”