By Katie Field, Rugby World writer
SCOTLAND BEGIN their programme of EMC Internationals looking for a fourth win in succession, after a clean sweep on their summer tour of Australia, Samoa and Fiji. Their opponents are in a different position, aiming to start a new run of victories after their run of 16 consecutive wins was halted by their 18-18 draw with Australia last month. However, that’s not to say Scotland go into the match as favourites, because they are up against New Zealand, who have won the World Cup and the Rugby Championship in the past 13 months and who have never lost to Scotland.
Singing the Blues
Scotland have played New Zealand 28 times and have managed two draws, but no wins. Since their most recent tie, 25-25 in 1983, the Scots have conceded an average of around 40 points a game to the All Blacks, and with New Zealand unquestionably the strongest side in the world at the moment, it will be the shock of the century if Andy Robinson’s side can pull off a victory this time. They have home advantage – and Murrayfield is a 67,144-sell-out in a November Test for the first time since it was redeveloped in 1994 – but last time New Zealand came to Edinburgh, two years ago, they strolled to a 49-3 triumph.
Both teams have a different look to their last outings. Scotland have made five changes, with Nick De Luca and Mike Blair coming in for the injured Joe Ansbro and Chris Cusiter, Jim Hamilton returning in the second row after missing the summer tour through suspension, Geoff Cross stepping into the front row in place of Euan Murray, who will not play on Sundays, and Kelly Brown coming back into the starting line-up ahead of Richie Vernon. Richie Gray passed a midweek fitness Test to take up his place in the second row.
New Zealand are fielding a new centre pairing of Ben Smith and Tamati Ellison, who coach Steve Hansen wants to try out at Test level having seen them combine well for the Highlanders. So there’s no Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith to contend with, but Scotland will still have to face up to Dan Carter, Richie McCall et al.
Aaron Smith makes way for Piri Weepu at scrum-half and Julian Savea is named on the left wing in the place of Hosea Gear. The pack sees wholesale changes with Adam Thomson and Victor Vito coming into the back row, Luke Romano replacing Brodie Retallick at lock and Wyatt Crockett, Andrew Hore and Owen Franks forming a different front row, instead of Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Charlie Faumuina.
Start Me Up
If Scotland are to have any hope of causing an upset, they have to start well. Allow the All Blacks to get onto the front foot, and that can only spell trouble. Scotland may miss Murray in the scrums, but they have terrific strength in depth in the second and back rows, as well as the dead-eye kicking of Greig Laidlaw to take any chance New Zealand offer up.
Coach Andy Robinson is clear about what’s required. “We will really need to start well and keep the game simple,” he says. “New Zealand are the world champions and they perform the basic skills, well, under the highest pressure. We need to step up from the summer tour and be ready to go toe to toe in a physical contest, just as Australia did most recently against New Zealand in Brisbane.”
Lest We Forget
As the match takes place on Armistice Day, a silence in memory of the war dead will be held before the game. Scotland lost more international players in the First World War than any other nation – 30 – while New Zealand lost 20.
Prediction: The raft of changes Steve Hansen has made to his New Zealand side gives Scotland a glimmer of hope, but I expect the tourists to win by a margin of 15 or 20 points.
SCOTLAND v NEW ZEALAND, Sunday 11 November, 2.30pm, Murrayfield, Live on BBC1
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg; Sean Lamont, Nick De Luca, Matt Scott, Tim Visser; Greig Laidlaw, Mike Blair; Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Geoff Cross, Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton, Alasdair Strokosch, Ross Rennie, Kelly Brown (captain).
Replacements: Scott Lawson, Allan Jacobsen, Kyle Traynor, Alastair Kellock, David Denton, Henry Pyrgos, Ruaridh Jackson, Max Evans.
NEW ZEALAND: Israel Dagg; Cory Jane, Ben Smith, Tamati Ellison, Julian Savea; Daniel Carter, Piri Weepu; Wyatt Crockett, Andrew Hore, Owen Franks, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock, Adam Thomson, Richie McCaw (captain), Victor Vito.
Replacements: Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Ma’a Nonu.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)