Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Scotland v Tonga, Rugby World Cup 2023: Match Preview pt I

Scotland vs Tonga
Scotland vs Tonga - graphic © Scottish Rugby Blog


2023 Rugby World CupSun 24th Sep 2023Stade de Nice, NiceKick-off: 4:45 pm (UK)45-17


Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU)| TV: ITV1/STV

Scotland’s defeat to South Africa in their opening fixture of the RWC leaves no margin for error when it comes to their remaining matches. Gregor Townsend’s side do at least know that if they can take bonus point wins from their games against Tonga and Romania, then they will remain in contention for a quarter-final slot going into the final round of the pool stages. Any less than that and it could be out of the Scots’ hands to ensure progression.

In Scotland’s favour for this weekend, they have emerged victorious in their second match in each of the previous nine World Cups:

  • 1987 Scotland 60 – 21 Zimbabwe
  • 1991 Scotland 51 – 12 Zimbabwe
  • 1995 Scotland 41 -5 Tonga
  • 1999 Scotland 43 – 12 Uruguay
  • 2003 Scotland 39 – 15 USA
  • 2007 Scotland 42 – 0 Romania
  • 2011 Scotland 15 – 6 Georgia
  • 2015 Scotland 39 – 16 USA
  • 2019 Scotland 34 – 0 Samoa

The differential of 10 places between the two sides’ relative position in the World Rugby rankings (Scotland 5th; Tonga 15th) has only been exceeded twice for a Scottish match at an RWC since the rankings were introduced 20 years ago:

  • 9 September 2007: Scotland 56 – 10 Portugal (10th v 22nd)
  • 9 October 2019: Scotland 61 – 0 Russia (9th v 20th)

The only occasion that the dark blues have lost a World Cup fixture to a side lower than them in the world rankings was against 9th placed Argentina in 2011 (Scotland were 8th). Across all Test matches though, the national side have lost to the 15th ranked side in the world once before – against USA on the summer 2018 tour…

Scotland v South Africa SWOT analysis

Strength – Kicking from hand

This is an area that had to be on point given how frequently Scotland started out inside their own territory and the necessity of trying to escape the stranglehold South Africa were attempting to put on the game. The dark blues had 29 possessions in the first 40 minutes, 21 of which began in their own half including 13 less than 25m from their own line (and on one of those occasions, behind their own line…)

Scotland ended up kicking slightly more, 28 to South Africa’s 27, although the Scots were more likely to need to use this facet of the game to try and escape from their own half whereas the Springboks were generally in better positions to be more aggressive and use their up and unders as a chance to really attack the contest in the air.

Finn Russell and Blair Kinghorn blended well with the full back’s pace allowing him to cover effectively in the backfield and get in position to use his boot to rack up some pretty epic distance into South African territory. A good example was when this 1-2 punch put the dark blues into their first real attacking position of the first half.

After a South African knock on, Kinghorn was able to hammer the ball from inside his own 22 up to 30m from the Springbok line. From Cheslin Kolbe’s subsequent garryowen Scotland were (slightly scrappily) able to tap the ball back, where Finn Russell was in position to attempt the 50-22. Kolbe did a remarkable job to just keep the ball in play but was then forced to kick to touch in his own half of the field.

Scotland ended up 39 metres further up the pitch than where the kicking battle started – and with the lineout throw-in. From this position they executed the cleanest backs move of the day, one which should have seen Darcy Graham put his wing buddy, Duhan van der Merwe in for a try. Winning plenty of territory this way, rather than having to muscle through aggressive Tongan defence every time, will be essential on Sunday.

Weakness – Lineouts

Scotland had a lot of lineouts – 17 to be precise and, in fact, many of their best moments started from the setpiece – but there were far too many basic issues at costly moments in the match. There were no fewer than 4 occasions when Scotland didn’t manage to get a jumper in the air. The ball was lost on 4 occasions – although it felt like more! The maul was never a factor – this may have been a deliberate choice to avoid playing into South Africa’s hands but it did make a bit easier for them to spread out in defence. It’s an area that is likely to look very different against Tonga but the maul also needs to be working if Scotland are going to front up against Ireland.

The first of those non-jumping lineouts (all in the second half) kicked off one of the most dispiriting sequences of the game in the immediate aftermath of Kurt-Lee Arendse’s try. A penalty kicked to within 15m of South Africa’s line should have given the Scots a great chance for a score and a lifeline back into the game but it was wrecked by a lineout malfunction with no Scot getting up. South Africa’s knock on trying to scoop up possession gave Scotland another chance but then the subsequent scrum brought a penalty with Malcolm Marx driving across and popping Zander Fagerson out. South Africa then couldn’t hang onto the ball after breaking away from their own lineout but that just led to another scrum penalty against the dark blues – with Willem Nel the man pinged.

It wasn’t just Scotland’s own lineouts that were a problem, there was little to no pressure on opposition ball either. South Africa had 11 throw-ins, 9 of which went off without a hitch. One was squint from Bongi Mbonambi’s skewed throw. The closest the Springboks came to an error from their jumpers was a loose tap down in their own 22 that Grant Williams then nearly turned into a try-scoring break! Essentially, the Scots got almost no pressure on their opponent’s hookers and jumpers. Looking for positives, once the ball was brought to ground, the dark blues did a very good job of containing the South African maul, turning over 1 directly and winning back possession from 3 handling errors when the Springboks were forced to play away from stationary breakdowns.

Opportunity – Chances created

Against arguably the best defence in world rugby – and on a day when some key playmakers and attacking threats were kept relatively quiet – Scotland still managed to carve out some big opportunities to score tries. The one where Darcy Graham held on to the ball and was tackled will probably haunt Scottish fans for a while but there were others as well.

From a quick free kick following a scrum, Russell passed out the back to Kinghorn, and the ball was quickly wide to Graham stretching South Africa on the right. Darcy beat the first tackle and at this point, SA had seriously over chased. When the ball came back to the left, Tuipulotu was able to pick off the rush of de Klerk. At this point, Sione had Schoeman and Gilchrist in midfield, Turner and van der Merwe wider and Ritchie on the touchline. Arendse was the only remaining South African defender and the winger had to pick an option – he chose to bomb up on Schoeman where he snuffed out the play. What might have happened if a wee chipped cross kick had gone into the corner at this point?

Just to compound the missed opportunity, Finn’s hit on Arendse cost Scotland a scrum on the 22 and instead South Africa had a penalty to clear their lines.

There was a real sliding doors moment immediately prior to South Africa’s 2nd try – the one that finally put them in almost total control of the contest.

After 5 decent carries from Scotland, moving right, then left, then right again, Scotland got what they were looking for from the Springbok defence. Russell had both parts of Huwipulotu pulling around his shoulder with Kinghorn running from deep and Graham hugging the touchline. Gray was hitting a decoy line – and it definitely was a decoy because he was the only forward in the vicinity and had no cleaner following him in. de Allende and Kriel had both been sat down by Gray’s charge. Kolbe had backed off and Willemse was having to step up. The Scottish centres were maybe a step or 2 back from where they might have been and Kriel had done an excellent job of getting in the eyeline – but the ideal personnel were in place to make the pass and then beat a defender one on one or chip and chase over the top with SA’s other speed merchant way over near the right touchline.

Instead, the ball was delivered into Gray’s hands, South Africa counter rucked over the isolated lock and seconds later Arendse was cantering in for a try.

There was also Finn Russell’s cross kick in his own half that was the perfect choice but overhit into touch; Ali Price’s grubber that bobbled out rather than staying in as George Horne’s did for Kyle Steyn’s second away to France; Darcy Graham and Cameron Redpath, on separate occasions, stepping back in with overlaps outside them.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to freeze the action and point out what should have happened but much, much harder to do it at full tilt in the fire and fury of a Test match. What has made this group of players among the best to ever play for Scotland though, is that they have been able to identify and execute these situations in so many big moments. Sometimes it’s a numbers game – not every chance will be taken so the priority has to be to increase the number of opportunities so if the conversion rate is relatively low, there are still enough scores on the board to win. That has to be the driving factor versus Tonga, getting into these positions often enough to allow the talent to execute.

Threat – Kick contests

The way the game went territorially and tactically meant that South Africa were the only one of the teams to put up contestable kicks – 9 of them in all. 2 were knocked on by Scotland and 2 by South Africa – not necessarily a bad result for the Springboks given the strength of their scrum and just one of the reasons why they are so happy to be aggressive and always get a man in the air fighting for possession. The dark blues did manage to scramble the ball back on the other 5 occasions but not a single one of those was collected cleanly leading to pressured situations inside their own half.

This may be less of a factor against Tonga – although no doubt their coaching staff will have noted Scotland’s struggles. It does feel like an area that the Scots themselves should be able to take more advantage of – there will be few back 3 players with Blair Kinghorn or Duhan van der Merwe’s height. There will still be some interesting battles in this area across the next two fixtures but it may be that this is only really a significant problem that needs solving when the final pool match against Ireland rolls around.

Hmmmm – Scrums

Up until there were 55 minutes on the clock and most of the Bomb Squad had arrived, the penalty count at scrums was level at 2 apiece with Scotland even able to point to a free kick won in the South African 22 as a tiebreaker. The next 3 scrums all went against the Scots though as the game was taken away from them blow by blow.

That frustrating 13-minute spell aside, the pack will feel they were able to live with much of what South Africa threw at them in this particular area. Hopefully, this stands them in good stead against an enormous Tongan eight who will bring all that weight to bear in the early stages of the scrum but who probably won’t be able to live with Scotland if they can stretch the pushing contest out to 5 or 6 seconds.

Outwith the scrum the penalty count was even at 5-5 which was a positive for Scotland given the pressure they were under in both attack and defence.

Tonga Scouting Report

Magnus Peacock has already taken a look at where Tonga stood ahead of the 2023 RWC. Here are some key stats from their opening pool fixture as they kicked off the tournament against Ireland:

  • 44% lineout success rate for Tonga, losing 5 out of 9 whereas Ireland were at 91% with just 2 lost from 23 throw-ins.
  • 6 of Ireland’s tries started with lineouts and saw them cross with only 1 ruck or maul (and on one occasion no rucks or mauls) required to unlock the Tongan defence. The Irish even bagged their final try off Tonga’s own throw-in.
  • Scotland’s lineout issues have to be resolved – this will almost certainly be their number one source for attacking possession and also an excellent place to win back possession from their opponents on Sunday.
  • Where Ireland did go through the phases they found the ʻIkale Tahi’s forwards and backs an imposing presence at the breakdown as the number of attackers started to dwindle. The Irish were turned over 4 times in the Tongan 22.
  • As well as those balls lost in the 22, Ireland were also held up over the line once; knocked on in goal; and had a try chalked off for a double movement – the scoreline could have been even worse for the Tongans.
  • The Sea Eagles weren’t able to get much production from their superstar centres with Pita Akhi and Malakai Fekitoa only making a combined 11 metres from 6 carries. Scotland need to replicate squeezing this influential duo out of the game.
  • Seasoned watchers of the URC will know all about the threat that Vaea Fifita can pose from pretty much anywhere on the pitch. The issue for the Scarlets’ back row / lock is that he was almost a one-man team at times in attack. The 30 metres he made with ball in hand was exactly the same as what was produced by the other 13 Tongan forwards combined.
  • 35 tackles were missed by the ʻIkale Tahi’s players with Malakai Fekitoa dropping off 5 of his 9 and Sam Lousi (16 made) the only Tongan starter not to miss a tackle.

Previous results

This will be the 6th time that these nations have clashed at Test level. The head to head looks like this from a Scottish perspective:


That solitary loss at Pittodrie in 2012 famously ended the tenure of head coach Andy Robinson and ushered in the Scott Johnson era. Thanks, Tonga…All that despite The Sea Eagles conceding 25 penalties and spending 24 minutes of the match playing short-handed due to yellow cards.

Most recent match, 30th October 2021 at Murrayfield:

Scotland 60 – 14 Tonga

Significant stat
21 – defenders beaten by Scotland’s back 3 (they also added 7 clean breaks for good measure). With exiles unavailable, this was a backup trio that ripped Tonga apart. There was a first start for Kyle Steyn, debut for Rufus McLean and the rare sight of Darcy Graham in the 15 shirt. Opportunities were at a premium for the speedy fellas against South Africa but getting Scotland’s back 3 involved as much as possible will be essential to stretching and breaking down the Tongan defence.

The Scottish Rugby Blog player ratings from that game are here.


Referee: Karl Dickson (England)
Assistant Referee 1: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
Assistant Referee 2: Craig Evans (Wales)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)

Mr Dickson took charge of a frankly bonkers match against Argentina in the Autumn Nations Series that saw 6 cards whipped out – 1 red and 5 yellows. There must have been something in the water at Murrayfield in November because 2 weeks earlier Nic Berry (who will ref the dark blues’ final pool match against Ireland) had dished out 5 yellow cards to Scotland and Fiji. No Scottish Test match in the previous 12 years had seen more than 3 cards so for Mr Dickson to top Mr Berry just a fortnight after the Ozzie whistler’s record tally was fairly remarkable.

Mr Whitehouse is back for the 3rd of his 6 pool matches as TMO, having had his decision not to bring Jesse Kriel’s challenge on Jack Dempsey a fortnight ago “vindicated by the citing commissioner” according to Rugby Pass (proprietor – World Rugby). This seems an ambitious claim considering the significant difference in responsibilities between the two roles.

A TMO is able to make a referral where there has been ‘clear and obvious’ (unlikely to be refereed in any other way) foul play that reaches the threshold of a penalty kick whereas the citing commissioner can only take action where he considers the red card threshold has been breached or issue a citing commissioner warning for foul play which falls just short of warranting an ordering off.

While the relative level of the offence and potential for a card would have needed multiple angles to come to a decision, to imply there was neither head contact nor foul play – the two essential elements required for the Head Contact Process to come into consideration, with a minimum sanction of a penalty kick – is pretty extraordinary.

Scotland’s previous games with Mr Dickson in charge:

  • 2021 – lost to France (H)
    Penalties: 21 (For 12 – 9 Against)
    Cards: none
  • 2023 – beat Argentina (H)
    Penalties: 24 (For 11 – 13 Against)
    Cards: Scotland 2 YCs (Ritchie, Tuipulotu); Argentina 1 RC & 3 YCs

Part II of the preview, including the head to heads, will follow later in the week after the team announcements.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion