So, a year from now and it’ll all be over and we will know just how far Scotland has come as a rugby nation. Scotland have been building towards World Cup 2011 since Andy Robinson came into post and the focus is now very much on next year’s big event. Progress has been made and the good folk at Team Scotland would point to good performances, and more importantly results, in the last 3 games – away from home – where they have beaten Ireland and the Argentinians (twice). A year from now though Scotland will be in the tightest Group at WC2011 with both England and Argentina standing in the way of progress to the knock out stages. Scotland need to keep on the upward trajectory to keep the momentum building towards WC2011 and the impending Autumn Internationals are now the next key test.Last year saw the first real flicker of progress for Scotland. A stunning victory over an improving Australia was a mighty fillip for Scottish rugby. Having kept it tight for the whole game, the heroic efforts over the last 5 minutes of the game were a sign that the side was finally forming backbone. Sure, they lost an injury time try (after a huge amount of pressure) and the win was in part due to Matt Giteau’s horrific kicking display – but the signs were good and a Southern Hemisphere scalp was vital to making progress. The 6 Nations was a mixed bag but on another day Scotland would have held out against Wales and cantered to a win against an England side that flatter to deceive. The win against Ireland was the best from a Scotland side in an awful long time. It also saw a marked improvement at the breakdown and set piece which is key to competing at the top level. This improvement was marked with two tour victories against an ageing Argentinian side.
So now here we are. The Best Side In The World TM and the World Cup winners will both grace the Murrayfield turf before a trip north to Pittodrie to wrap things up. How Scotland show up against New Zealand, South Africa and Samoa will be a barometer to how we are shaping up for the challenges of 2011.
First up is NZ – Scotland’s bogey team! There has certainly been a mental block in even trying to challenge the All Blacks lately. Hadden’s decision to play a 2nd string side in WC2007 may well have been pragmatic (and even vindicated in light of the victory over Italy that followed) but it was a tacit admission that Scotland not only couldn’t compete, but were simply not prepared to. I have to admit I supported his decision then but it left a terrible taste in the mouth. Scotland now have an opportunity to reset the balance by competing and facing up. I hope Scotland use Saturday’s game to set a line in the sand – no backing down, aggressive, precise and ruthless. I hope Scotland looked at the 2nd half performance from England which showed that a team that drives into the NZ players with pace and commitment will pose questions. The last two NZ games (against the English and the defeat to a resurgent Australia team) have seem them struggle in the later stages of games with both performances being riddled with stupid mistakes. They are an amazing side – but they sure ain’t 10 feet tall supermen who shoot lightning bolts from their collective arses. Treat them with respect, but don’t fear them. I don’t see Scotland winning but I would like to think that we will at least be competitive and set a marker for the games to follow.
South Africa pose an interesting challenge. Stripped of a number of first choice picks they are not the force they can be at full strength. Poor in the Tri-Nations, they are a side who appear to be slightly going through the motions. Whisper it….but Scotland could win this. We certainly have the players to compete and to pose the necessary questions. Key to this, as with any test match, will be to ensure the mistakes are kept at a minimum and that the backs are secure under high ball. If you can cut of f the scraps from which SA can feed then they have to create for themselves and force the game. If Parks can bring his ‘A’ game and use his tactical kicking to keep SA pinned deep then there is a real chance to challenge. I’m optimistic that if Scotland avoid a mauling from NZ then they can use that game as a platform to beat SA. A victory here, or even a strong performance, will help maintain momentum.
Last up at Pittodrie will be Samoa. Firstly, congrats to the SRU for having another game in the north. There is a real passion for the game up there (just look how many of the current squad are from ‘The North’!) and I’m sure the fans will turn up in force for the game. Samoa will be a physical challenge and will certainly not be a walkover. It is essential Scotland chalk up the win in this game – in many ways performance in this game is not as important…if Scotland are to compete at the international level these are the games they need to be able to grind out wins. Samoa will see Scotland as very achievable scalp and if Scotland are going to demonstrate that they are prepared to challenge in the upper echelons then they need to dispose of any Pacific Islanders coming their way. I see a Scotland victory, but reckon it could be nervy.
So, 2 victories and a good performance v NZ would be an exceptional return from the Autumn Internationals. It is certainly achievable, in my opinion the gap between Scotland and the top tier rugby sides is less now than it has been for a while. A year from WC2011 and Scotland are well placed to compete – come Saturday evening we’ll have a clearer idea of whether progress will continue.
Good luck Scotland….not one step back!