The third part of our ‘State of the Nation’ series (where we assess the top ten international sides ahead of Rugby World Cup 2015) looks at Scotland. They may have ‘won’ the wooden spoon in this year’s Six Nations, but are there reasons to be cheerful for supporters north of Hadrian’s Wall?
Scottish success at this month’s World Cup will come down to the answers to these questions: can they beat South Africa and can they beat Samoa? The answer to the first is probably not. The answer to the second is probably. And that, in a nutshell, sums up why this must be the most frustrating of times for Scottish supporters. This team, perhaps more than any other at the moment, are a team in flux and therefore difficult to predict. Yes, they were whitewashed in the Six Nations and, yes, the way they rolled over to eventual champions Ireland was very poor indeed, but there is general consensus that Vern Cotter’s side are on the up. Why? Well, Glasgow Warriors (who make up the majority of the side) are Pro12 champions and competitive in Europe. You could also look to how close Scotland pushed the All Blacks last autumn at Murrayfield. Or look to the thriller they produced in Paris last weekend. In this context, perhaps the Six Nations should be interpreted as a series of near misses (Ireland aside) rather than two months of ineptitude that the final table would have us believe. This could well be a side (just like the Welsh team of circa 2007/08) on the brink of big things. A scalp at St James Park against the Springboks perhaps? And yet, if that momentous win did occur, you wouldn’t bet against Scotland capitulating the week after at the hands of Samoa.
Frustrating. Very frustrating indeed.
So where should kilted optimists turn to for signs of World Cup success. Well, first of all, what would that look like for Scotland? We suspect something like this:
A comfortable victory over Japan first out (complete with skillful play and exhilarating running lines) is swiftly followed four days later by a thrashing of a poor USA team in Leeds. Next stop is Newcastle and the big one: a game against the world’s third best side which ends in another glorious defeat. Spurned on by the narrow margin of loss, the final game against Samoa is their best display yet: the Scots meet the extreme physicality of the Samoans but it is their greater flair that sees them through as runners-up in the pool. A quarter-final at Twickenham awaits against the winners of Pool A (see Australia, England or Wales). Before the game, the Scots are written off, but they produce another display on the level of their previous encounters with South Africa and Samoa. They are denied by a last minute try or penalty, executed by their more experienced opponents. The Scots exit the competition with their heads held high and spirits raised for next year’s Six Nations.
Can they achieve that scenario? Here’s a few reasons why they can: Stuart Hogg, Greig Laidlaw, Tim Visser, Sean Maitland, Richie and Jonny Gray, and David Denton. For the first time in a long while, Scotland have a core group of very good players. Furthermore, the Scots no longer carry any dead weight. Vern Cotter’s 31 man squad for the World Cup may have raised some eyebrows due to the amount of new faces included, but the fact that the Kiwi felt he could leave out regular names such as John Barclay, Jim Hamilton and Blair Cowan speaks volumes of their increasing strength in depth.
But here’s one for the pessimists – do Scotland believe they can win in those tighter contests because, for sure, the games against Samoa and South Africa will be tight. Had this World Cup happened a year ago (on the back of a successful run of victories on the Americas summer tour) then, psychologically, Scotland would have been in a better place. But in this year’s Six Nations the Scots were involved in four tussles and lost all of them before succumbing at home to Ireland so emphatically in that last match. Will two warm-up wins against the Italians and an improved performance in Dublin be enough to banish the seeds of doubt? After all, Scotland have lost their most recent meetings with both the Springboks and the Samoans.
But let’s focus on the positive. Their two key games are being played a mere 45 miles south of the border, and the Tartan Army should be in fine voice for both occasions. Twickenham in the knock-out stages may be a different story.
So will Scotland qualify for the quarters-finals? Uh….probably.