With the opening weekend of the 2015 Rugby World Cup looming, Scottish rugby fans are once again left expecting a tournament full of predictably unpredictable performances. Scotland have an unwanted track record of defying the odds and disappointing their fans in equal measure, and their World Cup preparations have given little cause to believe they will be anything other than their usual erratic selves.
There was a palpable sense of belief generated by the crushing victory against Italy at Murrayfield, the Scots coming in with a record-breaking win and showing their undoubted ability. However, the following game against France highlighted the vulnerability and inconsistency still characterising Vern Cotter’s developing young side. The Scots were let down by lapses in defensive discipline and were noticeably less clinical than in their game against the Italians where chances were snaffled with precision, rather than the more profligate attitude displayed against the French.
Scotland face a serious challenge if they wish to qualify from their group, though not an insurmountable one. A qualifying group featuring Japan, USA, Samoa and South Africa will ask some real questions of the Scottish team, but they have shown that despite their relative inexperience that they are a team brimming with talent.
South Africa are probably a bridge too far for this developing Scotland side, but you would hope that a team that so comprehensively dismantled Italy are capable of stepping up their game to beat the rest of their group stage opponents. The USA are undoubtedly physical and boast several talented players who have been lured to European clubs but you would expect Scotland’s superior technical skills and discipline to win out if they execute Cotter’s tactics properly. Japan are an exciting team and play with a lot of flair but Scotland should be able to outmuscle the Japanese pack and make use of scrum dominance to nullify the talents of the Japanese backs.
Samoa probably pose the greatest threat to Scotland in terms of qualifying in second place in the group. The Samoans are a hugely physical team and this, when teamed with their naturally attacking game, will mean that Scotland cannot afford to take them lightly or allow errors to creep into their game.
South Africa should dominate the group, as you would expect from the 3rd ranked rugby union team in the world. This does not mean that Scotland might not be able to snatch a famous victory but this would require a performance far above anything we have seen from Cotter’s side for quite some time. Realistically, Scotland can hope to finish 2nd in the group if they can avoid injuries to crucial players and play the kind of exciting rugby that has seen Glasgow Warriors make great strides in the club game, and has led to the inclusion of several Warriors’ players in the Scotland squad.
Scotland will also need their key players to be firing on all cylinders if they hope to progress to the knockout stage and beyond. Number 10 Finn Russell has been a revelation since breaking into the Scotland team in 2014, and Vern Cotter will be hoping Russell can produce the kind of calm, creative performances he has shown himself to be more than capable of. Meanwhile, centre Mark Bennett will be hoping to reproduce the electric showings that have seen him marked as one of the most exciting young talents in British rugby. Finally, Scotland will be hoping that the Gray brothers – Richie and Jonny – can hit top form, as the pair are potentially one of the most devastating second row partnerships appearing at the World Cup.
Scotland can go into this World Cup with a great amount of hope. However, it should be tempered by the realisation that nothing less than their absolute best will suffice if they wish to make any kind of progress.
Image courtesy of Daniel Nisbet