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November internationals a crucial test for Scotland

A bizarre offside call; Bernard Foley calmly collecting three points from the tee; 35-34.

Scotland need no reminder of the last time they met Australia. Woeful England, alongside injury-ravaged Wales and Ireland, had all been knocked out of the World Cup, leaving only Scotland to get to the business end of rugby’s pinnacle. The heartbreak was keenly felt – with empathy even offered by the English, such was the cruel nature of the defeat.

But this Saturday when the sides meet again, the game will be more than a chance for revenge.

The two chapters between the Wallaby encounters have thrown up tropes that have been present for years: scintillating moments of skill that whet the Scottish appetite, amidst a performance by a team let down by the basics. The Six Nations began with a 15-9 defeat to Eddie Jones’ nervous England, a result of a lack of game management long synonymous with Scottish rugby. Scotland dominated for long periods, but lacked the ability to close down those tight-fisted encounters in driving Edinburgh rain. A gallant loss in Cardiff showed their backs’ ability to worry even the stoutest defences, as Wales would surely attest. And, for the first time in 10 years, a battle cry in the form of a victory over the French. Savage defence forcing ‘Les Bleus’ backward, with entertaining and lethal running rugby providing a convincing victory and a memorable Murrayfield afternoon.

The two summer matches against Japan brought laboured victories, blighted by shoddy basics. Passion and raw ability were nearly overshadowed by knock-ons and wayward passes. Casting an eye over Vern Cotter’s 31-man squad for the three autumn games, there is staggering talent in the back line. Duncan Taylor was voted Saracens’ Player of the Year, ahead of even Maro Itoje. His clubmate Shaun Maitland has been excellent this season, as has Tim Visser on the Harlequins wing. Taylor’s place in the centres is not even guaranteed. He faces competition from Alex Dunbar, a player Will Greenwood labelled one of Europe’s best centres. Mark Bennett returns with an Olympic silver in the Sevens, while Matt Scott has been a mainstay for the past year. Indeed, Glasgow alone provide copious reasons to watch Scotland play: fly half Finn Russell has the swagger to face top teams and continues to distribute daringly whilst breaking lines with fleet of foot.

Stuart Hogg is electric, one of the most feared with ball in hand and space to enjoy, demonstrated by his outstanding solo try against Ireland this year. Greig Laidlaw is joining Clermont, a club that could take their pick of scrum halves worldwide. There is no higher praise for the skipper, a 9 who has tempered the enigmatic talents outside him with composure and immaculate distribution. If passes stick and calm remains, then the fluidity and ability of 9 to 15 may pose questions that Argentina, Georgia and Australia will not be able to answer. For all the excitement surrounding the backline, caution concerns the forwards. WP Nel and David Denton are both injured, and will be sorely missed. Denton’s engine at the breakdown and in the loose is irreplaceable, while Nel is a world class scrummager. An already lightweight Scottish pack will have to work overtime to make up for their absence.

Although there is concern that without two of its cornerstones, the front 8 may not be able to give its backs the platform needed, there is certainly cause for optimism. There has not been a better time to face Australia in recent memory. They come off the back of a 3-0 defeat at England’s hands, and a humbling Rugby Championship. Frailties at the lineout could be exposed by the towering Gray brothers, while the porous defence down under which was so accommodating to visitors will struggle, on paper, against Scotland. But the game is not played on paper, and now is the moment for Scotland to complement their individual qualities with doing the simple stuff.

 

Image Courtesy of Theo Laugh

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