From a Scotsman living in the land of the long white cloud
DOWN here in New Zealand, it seems that around 99 per cent of the rugby public see Saturday’s match as an easy win for the All Blacks. There is a general feeling that Ireland and England are the biggest Northern Hemisphere threats, and the most interesting thing about Scottish rugby for many people – staggering, in fact – was the decision to let Vern Cotter go.
The talk was that if Cotter had continued on to the 2019 Rugby World Cup with Scotland and done well there, we may then have seen him return home to take up a role with a Super Rugby team and perhaps with the All Blacks after that. Big Vern was in charge of Scotland the last time they took on the All Blacks, emerging with a creditable 24-16 defeat, and his departure in the summer will seem all the more inexplicable if Gregor Townsend’s side lose more heavily this time round.
There is obviously a strong possibility that New Zealand will win by a fair margin, and Scotland will have to get just about every aspect of their game plan spot-on if they are to have a chance of pulling off a first win in the fixture at the 31st attempt. But it can be done, so here, in no particular order, are the 10 things that the home team must get right at Murrayfield if they are going to pull off that historic victory.
1. DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED either mentally – and that starts with the haka – or physically. The All Blacks feed off doing what they need to do physically to win. There is a fine line between ‘dirty’ play and being hugely physical: they play right on the edge when they need to, so Scotland’s players need to be willing to go toe-to-toe with their opposite numbers and compete in the physicality stakes. Locks Luke Romano and Sam Whitelock will be key in the pack for physicality as New Zealand are missing Brodie Retallick. Back-row forward Sam Cane is as tough and durable as they come, but he is not dynamic in the loose.
2. SNUFF OUT THE COUNTER-ATTACK. Over here, we work incredibly hard at counter-attack footy, and in training the players play games that involve trying to score within 30 seconds of a turnover. This has come from the All Blacks’ environment and they are masters at it.
One way to avoid that is to put phases together so the All Blacks are retreating. If Scotland cannot get enough front-foot ball they will struggle, because at times the lack of progress leads to an aimless kick – and that, all too swiftly, leads to an All Black counter-attack.
3. MAKE THE KICKS CONTESTABLE AGAINST FULL-BACK DAMIAN McKENZIE, not the wingers. He is so small that, whilst good in the air, he struggles at times when pressured in the aerial contest.
4. THE SET-PIECE NEEDS TO BE GOOD for Scotland to provide a platform to work from: without set-piece parity the home team could be in for a very long day. Darryl Marfo did OK against Samoa, but he will not get as easy a ride from the All Blacks. Similarly, the lineout was good against Samoa, but the All Blacks will be ready for John Barclay, so Jonny Gray is going to have to take more responsibility.
5. STAY DISCIPLINED. Penalties can kill, yellow cards can be fatal too, so Scotland must avoid those while also trying to exploit New Zealand weaknesses, especially in the front-row. Starting loosehead prop Kane Haimes is inconsistent – he can be brilliant in one scrum and no good in the next – while substitute loosehead Wyatt Crockett gives away penalties too easily.
6. START WELL. It’s been a very long season for some All Black players, so they will be looking to build a big score early and see if they can get off and let the bench see the game out. If Scotland can weather the All Black attack early and even get themselves in front, that will keep the match meaningful. That means as far as possible playing the game in their half, and kicking intelligently: the bomb from the fly-half may be a better option than the box kick from the scrum-half in terms of angle and timing. Competing in the air, and making follow-up tackles count, is crucial.
7. TIGHTEN UP THE RESTARTS, which were a major problem last week against Samoa. There’s a simple rule of thumb here for Scotland to bear in mind at a re-start: the next set piece must be in the opposition half.
8. AGGRESSION WITHOUT THE BALL. The defensive problems against Samoa were physical rather than systematic. Scotland need to front up, and so far as possible defend at source by putting pressure on the All Blacks scrum, getting the numbers right at the breakdown, and keeping Beauden Barrett in his box.
9. PLAY RUGBY. Scotland are not going to win a war of attrition: instead, they need to keep play as fluid as is practical – without being reckless.
10. HANG IN THERE! Do not worry about the last play – or the next – or the the score. Win the current play, then go on to the next one, and build some momentum. And then, hopefully, if that happens, Scotland need to take their chances – and don’t forget about the drop goal.
* Easier said than done, that is.