The selection fog is clearing as Scotland run into form ahead of their crunch pool match with South Africa. Rory Baldwin assesses the lessons from their latest RWC win
Nel is the man at tighthead
Despite WP Nel only having a smattering of caps, the doughty South African-born prop has formed a crucial partnership with Al Dickinson in the front row and is now near indispensable. He may have taken a while to settle in when he first pitched up in Edinburgh and some doubted his quality, but he’s taken to international rugby like a duck to water. And he plays on Sundays.
He made a huge difference to the Scotland scrum when he appeared in the second half against the USA, not just in the tight but in the loose as well with some hefty carries and a well-taken try. He’ll also, one imagines, be relishing a contest against the land of his birth this week.
Players are hitting form at the right time
The first XV now pretty much picks itself with Nel, Dickinson, the Gray brothers, John Hardie, Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg clearly edging it in form across the summer warm-ups and two pool games so far.
Scott, in particular, has bounced back from injury to show the hard carrying that edges him ahead of Pete Horne in Vern Cotter’s power game.
The areas of contention are few. First is hooker, where Ross Ford has one of the highest tackle counts in the tournament and now only really has Fraser Brown challenging and unlikely to unseat him – Brown was used as cover at No 7 on Sunday.
The blend of six and eight chosen to join Hardie if he is passed fit is also up for debate, with Josh Strauss and Dave Denton both offering fairly similar dynamic ball-carrying but possibly doing enough to keep the hard-tackling Al Strokosch out.
In the wings there is a choice of four with Tommy Seymour probably first choice but a lottery between Sean Lamont, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser for the other slot.
Selection is easy, focus is hard
With the team helpfully picking itself, what Cotter needs to focus on now is sending them out to start well. South Africa are unlikely to be so lenient if Scotland perform poorly in the opening exchanges and are also unlikely to sit off in the face of any second-half onslaught.
Even against Japan they countered each other score for score and pure willpower saw Japan through. Half-time team talks are nice but Cotter needs to get them firing from the off, including dealing with restarts competently.
We’ve seen what this team can do with front-foot ball and a tight focus, but they need to be prepared to do it for the full 80 or the Springboks will make a real slog of it for Scotland fans.
Fingers crossed for Finn
As soon as Finn Russell hobbled off the field with an ankle injury on Sunday, fans were suddenly talking of the South Africa match becoming an exercise in damage limitation. Until that point, with the Scottish backs firing on all cylinders, it had been talked up as an opportunity for the Boks to be turned over for a second time in two weeks. It’s a testament to how much belief there is in the first-choice players but also how thin the depth is in key positions.
The injury report has him down as “requiring care and assessment”, so they’re not ruling him out yet. If it is touch and go, Cotter may save him for the Samoa game and hope that Duncan Weir can somehow help Scott, Bennett and Hogg unpick a South African midfield shorn of Jean de Villiers but likely to be no less impressive for all that.
This SA game is now huge
Previously Scotland might have rested a few key players in favour of putting out the full-strength team against Samoa which was dubbed the pool decider.
The Japanese defeat of South Africa changed all that, opening the pool up to the point where the Scots now have a great opportunity to push for an upset of their own and actually top the pool, which sounds ludicrous if you watched Scotland’s two first halves so far but not if you look at the scoresheets, or indeed the second halves.
With the opponents in the knockout stages likely to be any of the Pool A big three, who are still a long way from sorting themselves into any sort of order, it could be a massive step towards Scotland determining their own destiny at the World Cup.
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We can only hope they realise it’s going to take more than 40 minutes to do so.
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