Argentina is acid test for Scotland World Cup hopefuls

Scotland centre Peter Horne on an exercise bike at the team hotel in Resistencia. Picture: �Fotosport/David Gibson
Scotland centre Peter Horne on an exercise bike at the team hotel in Resistencia. Picture: �Fotosport/David Gibson
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Some one-off Tests take place and quickly become minor, loose-leaf entries in the history of the national team. But when Scotland take on Argentina this evening in this northern provincial capital, there will be a lot more riding on the match.

For a start, this is the decider in terms of the tour. The record stands at a win and a loss after the games against Canada and the USA, so a positive result would ensure that, statistically at least, this would be seen as a successful expedition to the Americas. Of greater longer-term importance, however, is that this match will tell head coach Gregor Townsend a lot about his players – most significantly, the younger, less experienced ones who hope to force their way into the World Cup squad next year.

Townsend could have played safe in his selection, either with the aim of protecting some of his rookies after their chastening experience in Houston, or simply with the intention of giving himself the best chance of a win by choosing his most battle-hardened players. Instead, he has opted to show faith in players such as the half-back combination of George Horne and Adam Hastings, as well as persisting with a degree of experimentation even when going for experience, notably by fielding hooker Fraser Brown in the back row.

Brown is a stick-on to be involved in the Autumn Tests, but for Horne and especially Hastings this could be a last chance for some time to persuade Townsend they are maturing quickly enough to be ready for Japan. They do not need to show off anything fancy today, or display to the coach the extent of their armoury. Instead, they simply need to be effective, clinically and brutally so, because by doing that they will have proved themselves tough enough to make a quick recovery from adversity.

“You’d take a 3-0 on the weekend here,” is how George’s elder brother Pete put it. “You just want to come here and win. All you care about is winning: you don’t care how the game goes, how you play, as long as you do your job in a winning performance. Then you can go home, rest easy, and have a good summer.

“Our big thing is just physicality. We’ve spoken a lot about making sure we win collisions and just really stamp our physicality right. We’ve spent so long the last couple of years taking so many steps forward, and that was a massive one back at the weekend. So we need to make sure that we start making some big physical tackles and making sure they realise it’s not going to be the same as last week.”

This is Argentina’s last game under Daniel Hourcade, but if the players want the head coach’s reign to end on a high they have shown little sign of such an inclination over the past fortnight, in which they have twice lost to Wales. However, every member of the Pumas team also plays for the Jaguares, who are second in their Super Rugby pool having achieved some impressive results both home and away.

With a vociferous support behind them at the Estadio
Centenario, home of the Sarmiento football club, the Argentines are likely to put in a passionate performance whatever their feelings about Hourcade. As Horne said, Scotland will need to improve their physicality from last week, but this game will also be a mental challenge for them. There is a temptation to retreat back into your shell when you find yourself in a different language community without many of life’s little luxuries, something the tourists will have to resist if they are to get out there, impose themselves on their opponents and silence the crowd.

“We’ve made a conscious effort not to close in on ourselves,” added Horne, who will have Nick Grigg outside him in midfield. “When you think something’s going to be really rosy and then it isn’t, there’s a real temptation to go into your shell. That’s the worst thing you can do and I almost felt we did that in the second half in Houston. It got tight and we started playing not to lose instead of expressing ourselves and playing to win.

“We can’t let that happen against the Argentinians or they will run riot. Wales were very, very physical, they got off the line and defended well but they also played a good, positive brand of rugby which is something Argentinian defences seem to be struggling with. We’ve got all the tools to beat these guys at the weekend, so fingers crossed.

“We need to get better at beating lesser opposition – no disrespect to America and Canada – but we also need to start winning away from home in brutal environments. This will be noisy, it will be loud, and that gives me goosebumps straight away just thinking about it.

“It tests character. It’s a fight-or-flight kind of thing.”