IT IS difficult to imagine two more differing opponents than Japan and the USA Eagles, the ying and the yang of international rugby. The former are all about precision and pace while the USA team are strictly old school, packed with big, muscular athletes who will test Scotland’s physical resolve rather than their speed of thought.
That is not the only shake-up to the Scotland squad who must play tomorrow’s World Cup Pool B game, with the gas in the tank in danger of running critically low at some point midway through the second half. They took full advantage of just that when Japan spluttered to a halt around the 60-minute mark and the USA are hoping that Vern Cotter’s team suffer the same fate.
The Scotland coach has done what he can to freshen his team in an effort to keep the enthusiasm and energy somewhere around peak flow but that necessitates starting his second-choice front row and fielding a midfield of relative Lilliputians in Finn Russell, Peter Horne and Mark Bennett. That trio can expect to be tested all afternoon by the Eagles’ big men, including the appropriately named powerhouse centre Thretton Palamo.
Matt Scott is named on the bench and he may yet be rushed into the action. In the absence of him and Sean Lamont the Scots have no back to carry the ball over the gain line when faced with an organised defence. It isn’t Cotter’s favoured modus operandi but, when needs must, it is sometimes the only way out of a jam and that exit is not available from this starting team.
The run-on team also includes John Hardie, who is doubling up after the flanker put in a lung-busting effort against Japan last Wednesday. Given the way the Kiwi throws himself into every contact was it wise to give the only seven in the squad another run? “Let John get through this game and we will assess things,” Cotter responded. “He knew he may need to back up in these games and he’s conditioned himself physically and mentally for that. We need to get through this game and then have a really close look at the South African game. We will then compete against them in the best way possible.”
Most pundits would pick this Scotland team to beat the Eagles. Josh Strauss is not much below David Denton and the South African will be fighting for that starting spot. Alasdair Strokosch is just the sort of robust character needed against the USA and Richie Gray will be desperate to outshine his second row colleague. Only in the front row are Scotland fielding a noticeably weaker unit and the USA probably don’t have the weapons to take advantage of it. Bringing six props to this World Cup, as the Eagles have done, is not a sign of strength but weakness.
In fact, the Scots should find the Americans’ direct runners easier to handle than Japan’s hit-and-run offence when it was almost impossible to regroup in good time to make any tackle let alone a dominant one. Furthermore, the Scots have beaten the USA with something to spare in every one of their four meetings at international level, winning by an average of 33 points, even if that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story.
In each match between the two teams the winning margin has dropped until, in the heat of Houston last summer, it was down to 18 points following a 24-6 victory, not that either team will read too much into that scoreline. Just six Scots survive from the scratchy XV that took to the field that day and no more than seven of the Eagles reappear tomorrow.
Inevitably, some Scottish fans will have banked the win and mentally moved into the next match but the team and their ever-cautious coach cannot afford themselves such luxuries. Cotter was asked about the bonus point and someone even suggested the Scots could top the group – both ideas were instantly dismissed like the Spanish Inquisition crushing heresy.
“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves once again,” Cotter said yesterday with weariness creeping into his voice. “I respect the opponents in this group too much to be predicting or expecting anything. We’re fully focused on trying to put on a good performance on Sunday.
“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We are not on the paddock yet, the game starts in two days time… The players will be 100 per cent committed. We need to be playing our best rugby tomorrow and see what happens after that.
“Our guys pride themselves on their performances and the fact that they work hard for each other. I know that the players selected will give 100 per cent commitment, 100 per cent of the time.
“We can only ask for that and see how the games unfold.”
If they produce 100 per cent commitment for 100 per cent of the time the Scots should retain their 100 per cent record in this competition… but not without knowing they have been in a battle.