Much has been made in the build-up to this evening’s match against the All Blacks of the feeling that Scotland have won back a bit of respect from the world’s leading rugby nation and the hope that can be built on further with a competitive showing.
Steve Hansen has picked a full-strength side as the Kiwis look to stretch their unbeaten run against the Scots to 31 Test matches. Home assistant coach Mike Blair, who lost four times to New Zealand at Murrayfield during his career, believes that the interest in how they are viewed from outside is not something that is shared by a group of players unburdened by the sometimes embarrassing position Scotland have found themselves in terms of global standing in recent years.
“It’s not that we don’t have deep thinkers, it’s that we have guys who are coming through who are part of a generation that has been more successful,” said Blair.
“Glasgow have won a [Pro12] league title and Edinburgh have been in the European Challenge Cup final, there’s been more success with Scotland.
“In the era where I played there wasn’t so much success, so you’re more concerned about how the game might go, but these guys have more confidence in what they’re doing individually and in how we’ve progressed as a team.”
One of the key confidence players in the team is stand-off Finn Russell, who was a bit off last weekend against Samoa, and tonight goes head to head with the great Beauden Barrett.
Russell enjoyed outshining another legendary Kiwi No 10, Dan Carter, during Glasgow’s European clashes with Racing 92 last season and is renowned for rising to the big occasion. If Scotland are to have any chance of making history this evening then the pivotal Russell will have to be at the top of his game.
“I’ve talked to Finn about measuring ourselves against the best and there are players all across the pitch who have a stage on which they have a chance to prove that they are world-class players,” said skills coach Blair.
Scotland’s aim to be the fastest-tempo Test team in the world may require a bit of reining in tonight with a tad more conservatism called for against such formidable opposition, but Blair believes playing a quick game is becoming second nature.
“Glasgow play a fairly open, fast game at the moment and Edinburgh have moved on their game to playing with a lot of tempo,” said the coach, who combines his national duties with the Warriors. “With our fitness results and the training we do we’ve seen that there’s capacity for us to be able to play like that. As with all new things there might be a bit of bedding-in time, but the majority of the players are playing high-tempo rugby with their clubs every week.
“New Zealand play a fast game as well. There’s a balance because you can’t play the fastest tempo rugby in the world the whole time because the weather or the way the game is going may not allow that, and obviously there’s a big element of game management.
“But we feel we’ve got a squad capable of playing that type of rugby if required.”
The truth is, of course, that whatever strategy Scotland employ they know they are facing a side who have proved themselves capable of dealing with most things thrown at them.
“They’ve got a pretty strong set-piece and maul game,” continued Blair. “It’s all about mixing up our game.
“If New Zealand come out in the first five minutes and do something defensively that’s different from what we’ve seen before then we’ll have to adapt. We’ve got things up our sleeves, and that’s up to the game managers – [scrum-half] Ali Price, Finn, [captain] John Barclay – to choose the best options.”
Blair admitted that receiving restarts was one area that must improve dramatically after some familiar failings resurfaced last Saturday.
“There were a few difficult moments against Samoa,” he conceded. “New Zealand kick short, so the French [who lost 38-18 to the tourists in Paris last Saturday] had 12 players within metres of the kick-off, showing a real intent of stopping that.
“So it’s about keeping an eye on what they’re doing. We’ve got good guys in the air, it’s about having that focus. It’s a bad time to give away points when you’ve just scored.”
Blair is confident that the weight of history and the hype around the fact Scotland are still searching for that first win over the All Blacks has not affected the mentality of the squad.
“This hasn’t been any different from other matches,” he said. “We’ve reviewed the All Blacks’ games and seen if there’s anything that we see from game to game and if there is we’ve looked at it as focus points.
“But mainly we’ve focused on ourselves and having robust defence that can handle lots of different options, and an attack that has options within it as well.”