“Nobody beats Vitas 17 times in a row,” is the famous quote from the colourful American tennis player Vitas Gerulaitis after he finally snapped a 16-match losing run against the great Jimmy Connors.
Well, the All Blacks have already gone one better on Scotland than the “Brash Basher” managed to inflict on the late playboy by rattling off 18 straight wins since the 25-25 draw in 1983 and, as if it needs repeating, have never lost to tomorrow’s hosts in 30 outings since that first meeting at Inverleith back in 1905.
When faced with such an imposing record and wondering how on earth it can be finally ended, it is hard not to stray into well-worn cliches. Scotland will have to be at their absolute best and hope New Zealand have an off day, a bit of luck will be needed, and all those other old chestnuts.
Gregor Townsend and his coaching team are the paid professionals who will have been going through the fine details and restlessly plotting how Scotland can hurt the world’s undisputed best team but, for less trained eyes, there are some obvious answers when mulling over the ‘how do we beat them?’ question.
The most glaring is that the defence will have to be markedly tightened following the chastening experience, albeit in victory, of conceding five tries to Samoa last weekend.
Former Scotland lock Jim Hamilton has pointed to the fact that New Zealand beat a strong Samoa side 78-0 in the summer ahead of the Lions tour and extrapolated that a similarly slipshod Scottish rearguard could ship 80 points to the All Blacks.
“Jim has an opinion. We realise if we don’t play well, we don’t defend well then New Zealand are going to score points,” said Townsend. “They have scored points against any defence they have come up against. Last week they were very impressive against France in the rain. They scored 30 points by half-time so we have to defend very well. And defend much better than last week.”
Of course, such theoretical judgment based on previous results is the kind of false science which led to Scotland declaring themselves unofficial football world champions after beating England at Wembley in 1967. Scotland beat Australia in Sydney in June and the Wallabies recently toppled the All Blacks but few would use that as a sign to put the mortgage on Scotland at 9-1.
“You can make that logical argument for just about any team you’ve beaten over the last couple of seasons. What is true is that both New Zealand and Australia have improved since June,” said the Scotland coach who, publicly at least, is not overly concerned by the defensive lapses which took the gloss off last weekend and stressed each game has its own life. “Just the way the Samoan game went, it got quite loose and open,” he said. “The ball we gave up in the 22. If we do that this weekend we will concede. We are not denying that so we must make sure we don’t give any cheap ball.”
If Scotland can get the defence right, they can then get to work on hurting the opposition. Players such as Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones and Tommy Seymour have proved themselves capable of opening up the best defences.
Cliche or not, fortune will be needed. But, as many a gambler has painfully discovered, just because the roulette wheel has thrown up black the last 18 times doesn’t mean it won’t again.