It’s the big one this weekend with Scotland taking on the Best Team in the World™ as New Zealand come calling.
With the talent that has appeared in Scottish ranks over the last few years, the chance to have a proper crack at them was possibly a bit more appealing before the current run of injuries deprived us of a number of our top line players. Back in the early days of the blog, it wasn’t really much fun, this fixture.
Townsend has been able to pick a fairly settled back line with the Price/Russell/Hogg creative axis the beating heart of this team. Hogg comes into the line a lot in attack (which could be what deprives the centres of ball), so New Zealand will probably look to keep him pegged back with kicks especially if conditions are poor. It will be great to see him play against them again after he was cruelly deprived by Conor Murray’s elbow earlier in the year. More opportunities for the insanely promising Huw Jones could actually be good for Scotland though. Witness the chaos Russell caused to Australia in Sydney as they held off tackling him, unsure of what he was going to do and giving enough time to cut them open. Imagine if you had to defend three of them in Hogg, Jones and Russell?
I suppose it would be like playing a fifth of the All Blacks, who threaten from 1-15. Ah well, back down to earth. I do believe this team can score tries against New Zealand.
Gregor Townsend has spoken of continuity with the side throughout the autumn so the likelihood was always that there would not be too many changes from last week barring injury.
Up front, Nel’s arm fracture means that Fagerson will start at tighthead. With Marfo on the loosehead capping his particular fairytale it will be a front row unit unafraid of reputations or a bit of pushing and shoving but with Stuart McInally – who got a new 2 year contract this week – at hooker they are still very short on high-level match experience. This’ll be Zander’s biggest test yet but he at least has 10+ caps to fall back on.
There are some experienced, big game players in this team and the likes of Jonny Gray and Edinburgh’s new signing John Barclay will need to step up with a huge defensive effort if that backline is to have even half a chance. If everyone performs and the defence holds, there is a chance, however small. The rejuvenated Murrayfield crowd will be a new thing for the All Blacks as will a Scotland side that wilts less easily than they might be used to. In the back row, Cornell du Preez makes a welcome ball-carrying addition for his first start as Ryan Wilson injured his shoulder in the Samoa game.
It is the best side we have going, which does however mean that the main worry is likely to come from the relative strengths of the benches.
You would think that if fit (or otherwise available) Fraser Brown, WP Nel, Richie Gray, John Hardie, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland and Duncan Taylor all would have played some role in this fixture. Even if from the bench – but that is the best part of a pretty handy looking, experienced bench Scotland are missing.
Instead Grant Gilchrist, Luke Hamilton and Simon Berghan come in to fill holes left by injury or players promoted to the starting XV. Hamilton could earn a first cap as could Byron McGuigan who comes in for Chris Harris. There’s a raw look to it, for sure, with a combined total of just 72 caps and if you take out Horne and Pyrgos it drops to 21 caps.
With a midweek game against France on Tuesday, New Zealand have reserved many of their top players for this one including Sonny Bill – whom I am sure Finn will teach a thing or two about offloads – although there was a late call on the fitness of their captain Kieran Read. Any number of leaders could command the side in his place but overall the strength of the team should be taken as a compliment. With a record that spans multiple lifetimes, no All Black wants to be in the first team to lose to Scotland and they will have been studying the recent upturn closely.
Elsewhere as predicted Lee Jones will take on the mighty Naholo our very own House Party will be up against possibly the number one pair of half-backs in the world.
If by some set of good fortune Scotland are still in the game in the dying quarter of an hour, is the depth of the squad coming off the bench going to be able to prevent those final soft tries that are the common price of trying to live with New Zealand for the previous hour? That is the unique agony of playing the All Blacks. You can compete, and compete well, but the scoreboard records a six try drubbing if you run out of steam. To quote Huw Jones:
“Nobody can be 70%. To beat the number one team in the world everyone, from one to 23, has to be at their absolute best for 80-plus minutes.”
Keep your fingers crossed our lads have plenty left in the tank for this one.
Scotland: 15. Stuart Hogg (vice-capt), 14. Tommy Seymour, 13. Huw Jones, 12. Alex Dunbar, 11. Lee Jones, 10. Finn Russell, 9. Ali Price; 1. Darryl Marfo, 2. Stuart McInally, 3. Zander Fagerson, 4. Ben Toolis, 5. Jonny Gray (vice-capt), 6. John Barclay (capt), 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Cornell du Preez.
Replacements: 16. George Turner, 17. Jamie Bhatti, 18. Simon Berghan, 19. Grant Gilchrist, 20. Luke Hamilton, 21. Henry Pyrgos, 22. Pete Horne, 23. Byron McGuigan.
New Zealand: 15. Damian McKenzie, 14. Waisake Naholo, 13. Ryan Crotty, 12. Sonny Bill Williams, 11. Rieko Ioane, 10. Beauden Barrett, 9. Aaron Smith; 1. Kane Hames, 2, Codie Taylor, 3. Nepo Laulala, 4. Luke Romano, 5. Sam Whitelock, 6. Vaea Fifita, 7. Sam Cane, 8. Kieran Read (capt).
Replacements: 16. Nathan Harris, 17. Wyatt Crockett, 18. Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19. Liam Squire, 20. Matt Todd, 21. TJ Perenara, 22. Lima Sopoaga, 23. Anton Lienert-Brown.
Coverage on BBC Sport and BT Sport, kick off 5.15pm, Saturday 18th.