What was the best performance from a Scotland team that you witnessed last season? The U20s finished a record high fifth in the World Championships despite Scotland’s traditional shortage of numbers being compounded at age grade. The senior side enjoyed wins over Wales and Ireland in the Six Nations and triumphed over Australia in Sydney for the first time ever while the women also scored two notable Championship wins after a long drought.
But for all that excellence, the stand out performance by a Scotland team took place over just seven minutes when the sevens team allowed New Zealand a three-try lead in London but still overhauled them in an irresistible second-half performance. It wasn’t a full-blown Test match but it was still the first time that an official Scotland team had beaten an official New Zealand one at any level.
With the All Blacks due at Murrayfield next Saturday, Gregor Townsend’s side will take heart not only from that result but also from the fact that, judged by their own high standards, the All Blacks look a little vulnerable at the moment.
Most pundits expected Steve Hansen to step down after the Lions’ tour last summer but perhaps the unsatisfactory nature of a drawn series persuaded him to stay on and things haven’t gone to plan.
In the three seasons up to and including 2016, the All Blacks lost just three international matches (and drew one). In 2017 they have already lost two and drawn one. For any other team those figures would be a source of pride, for New Zealand they represent a drop in standards from 2013 when they registered a perfect 14 wins from 14 Tests.
It’s not as if the All Blacks can’t reach their usual heights, because they kyboshed both Australia and South Africa this season. They beat the Wallabies 54-34 in Sydney and they racked up a record 57-0 winning margin against the Bokke in Albany.
The problem isn’t ability, the problem, if it can be termed as such, is inconsistency. The All Blacks lost to Australia last time out in Brisbane and they could, arguably should, have lost to the Bokke who ran them perilously close in Cape Town before losing by one point. And this from an ordinary Springboks’ squad that most pundits in the republic reckon would lose comfortably to a South African exiles XV.
Shouldering at least some of the blame is Beaudon Barrett, who was below his best in the face of the Lions’ aggressive defence, excellently led by Jonathan Davies. Huw Jones will have taken note although he will do well to mirror the Welshman’s judgment on when to jump out of the line and when to drift.
If Scotland’s Finn Russell is unchallenged for his shirt, so too is Barrett. The stand-off was injured last time out and replaced by the Highlanders’ Lima Sopoaga who struggled in that Wallaby defeat and was replaced by full-back Damien McKenzie.
Although McKenzie has played most of his senior rugby in the 15 shirt he played junior football at ten and there is talk of pushing him into the playmaker role for the Chiefs next season. If nothing else it would give Barrett something to chew on.
Hansen might opt to experiment as early as next weekend but, unlike the last time New Zealand were in town, Scotland should face something close to a first-choice starting XV.
For financial reasons New Zealand have agreed to play a French XV in a non-cap match on Tuesday evening in Lyon. Hansen may drag a few of his dirt-trackers off the Lyon pitch around the 50 minute mark so they could do a shift against Scotland if needs be, but not too many.
There are a few new faces and one such is Vaea Fifita, a Tongan-born loose forward, very much the coming man. Fifita earned his first start against Argentina in the Rugby Championship, he scored a try from 40 metres out and won the man-of-the-match award. Scotland have nothing to match his athletic excellence and nor, a cynic might add, do Tonga.
With Jerone Kaino injured, Fifita has an opportunity to lay claim to the number six jersey that Liam Squire is also eyeing enviously.
Fifita is not the only island-born player sporting black. Prop forward Nepo Laulala (brother of Casey) was born in Apia but schooled in New Zealand while the Fijian-born flyer Waisake Naholo is looking to cement his starting place on the right wing just as Reiko Ioane has sewn up the left. Despite Julian Savea’s strike rate of 46 tries in 54 Tests “the Bus” couldn’t get into the All Blacks touring squad never mind the match-day 23.
The sevens side may have shown great courage and ability to beat the All Blacks in the short game but the chances of their success being repeated next Saturday by a Scotland team that is shorn of several key players and under-powered up front are vanishingly thin, regardless of any All Blacks’ blip.