Now they've negotiated the Pool stages with a few heart-in-mouth moments, Scotland can approach the Wallabies game with nothing to lose
By Rory Baldwin
They say if you’re sitting around a poker table and you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you. Looking at the quality of performance that was seen in the last round of Pool matches by those who made it (and some who didn’t), are Scotland the suckers?
Let’s be clear, Scotland deserve to be in the quarter-finals, but even the most tartan-tinted spectacle wearer would concede that their presence in the knock-out stages has been reached despite them putting in a complete, or even nearly complete performance.
Is there anything in any of our matches to date – dispatching three Tier 2 sides and being hammered by South Africa – that makes us think we could cross the line where Wales failed against Australia? Or that we could cope without our captain and our playmaker and still dispatch France?
For us it is now a successful World Cup (unless you are SRU supremo Mark Dodson), but the improvement required from now until Sunday in order to remain ‘in the game’ suddenly looks very tall order indeed.
Could Scotland profit from being the ‘new Japan’?
Being plucky underdogs is where Scotland tend to thrive, and no-one’s going to put us down as favourites to topple the reborn Wallabies. Okay, so we were party-poopers in the end for the Brave Blossoms, but perhaps Scotland can find a way into the hearts of the neutrals that adopted them if they can keep playing an attacking brand of rugby in games where no one gives them a hope in hell of progressing.
The problem with that is that we need to actually do that, rather than applying dubious tactics (as seen vs South Africa) or barely turning up at all as we saw in the first half against Samoa. Show a little heart and a willingness to fling it about, and you’ll win the crowd over. Flap around like a fish out of water and the best you’ll get is an ironic cheer when you score that late consolation try.
We’ve got a lot going for us on paper
Despite four good halves of rugby out of eight, Scotland still have players topping the tables at this tournament, not least Greig Laidlaw who has scored the most points (60) in the competition. The Gray brothers are both in the top ten for tackling, and even Ross Ford is in the top five for lineouts won (it’s also pleasing for Glasgow fans to see the departing DTH Van Der Merwe and offl-load champ Leone Nakarawa topping the charts).
There are also fewer and fewer debates over positional choices in the team, although the back row blend continues to be a source of concern given Ryan Wilson‘s rush of blood to the head for his yellow card and David Denton carrying less profitably than he did in the warm up games.
Greig Laidlaw is Borders born and bred, but the captain aside, it does say something that our two best performers in the group stages have probably been John Hardie and WP Nel, a couple of imports. Laidlaw’s game management has been very savvy, but there are still questions around his speed of service, with many fans left screaming at him to get the ball away from the ruck where Samoa were so effective and Scotland seemed to commit so few players.
Those screams will only become louder when the fearsome Michael Hooper and David Pocock are on the pitch, scavenging for any ball they can get.
Time is running out
Our continued mantra has been: wait till we click, we’ll give someone a shock. One-hundred cap stalwart Sean Lamont has this week been cautioning against writing Scotland off next weekend, which is the sort of thing we like to hear, even if all evidence appears to the contrary.
Although we are back where we want to be as plucky underdogs, the time to build has run out in this tournament. Many teams looked like they hit peak form this weekend past in some terrific test matches.
Even if many are injury-stricken as a result while Scotland are still at near full strength, Wales, Ireland and the rest will all be accustomed to test-level intensity. Yes there is hope, but there is also ignoring the evidence of our own eyes. We so desperately want this young team to be good and we believe they are, but sadly we’re going to need a little more to go on than that in the knockout stages of a World Cup.
Without wishing to come over all Private Frazer, if the performance that every Scotland fan sees this team capable of in his minds eye doesn’t materialise in at least some form next weekend – and for 80 minutes – Australia will quite simply rip us apart.