PLAYERS often stress that they are only focused on their own team, not thinking further than the next game, have not even considered the permutations of what theoretically could lie ahead in the coming weeks.
The temptation is to dismiss this as meaningless cliché and suspect that, deep down, they are in fact spending a lot of time thinking about all of those things but know it would come across as presumptuous or cocky if they said so.
However, a hint that there might well be some truth in it came at the Scotland team hotel yesterday when Blair Cowan was asked if he would rather face Wales or Australia in the quarter-final.
The flanker looked quizzically back at his questioner and said: “We wouldn’t be playing one of those would we?”
When assured that, yes indeed, should Scotland make it through by beating Samoa this Saturday, it would be Wales or Australia, most likely the winner of that pair’s meeting, at Twickenham the following weekend, Cowan’s surprise looked genuine. But then after being surprisingly left out of the initial 31-man squad you could forgive him for not having a wallchart up on his bedroom wall.
Cowan is back on the squad after coming in for the injured Grant Gilchrist and, after considering the question again, said: “I don’t want to look too far ahead but I suppose Wales. I thought Australia were exceptional. Everyone is writing about England but it’s one of the best Australian teams I’ve seen in a long time. [Bernard] Foley was exceptional and [David] Pocock and [Michael] Hooper at the breakdown must be a nightmare for any side.”
Cowan was recovering yesterday from a pretty formidable breakdown of his own after Saturday’s intense forward battle with Springboks, who continued their wounded animal response to that Japan shocker with another mighty physical effort which threatened to overwhelm the Scots at times.
“It certainly feels like I played a game of rugby yesterday,” he said, with a grimace. “Mentally I was very aware of it because it was South Africa we were playing. I was prepared for a physical battle, we all were. And that’s exactly what we got. There are a few bumps and bruises this morning.”
The focus swiftly focuses to Samoa now and, despite them being out of the running for the quarter-finals now, Cowan feels that could, if anything, make them more dangerous as they throw caution to the wind.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on their games. Samoa are a dangerous team, they always are and that’s the beauty of them,” he said.
“They can be one thing one minute and then absolutely devastating the next. I know a few of their boys, I have a couple at the club and I played with a few when I was younger.
“I know how talented and physical they are so we are well aware of their strengths. We will be more focused than we ever have been in the tournament.
“They will be looking to end on a high given everything they’ve been through. One thing a Samoan team will always bring is passion.
“They will come out firing and we need to be ready in that first 20 minutes. This will be the biggest game of my career to date if selected. We’ve got the goods and we need to be smart upstairs.”
Cowan plays his club rugby with London Irish and said he took no pleasure from seeing the hosts turfed out of their own party.
He said: “I really do feel for England and I think it will take a lot away from the World Cup with them not being there.”