A MATCH that in itself counts for nothing, just three weeks before a game that is arguably Scotland’s most important for four years. Opponents who are desperate to prove themselves against the first major rugby-playing nation to visit them. A fanatical capacity crowd in Georgia who will cheer their heroes on every step of the way.
That is the context of today’s Test in Tbilisi, and explains why many Scotland supporters will be tempted to watch it from behind the sofa. Especially given Gregor Townsend’s selection of such a strong starting line-up, there is understandable concern about key players picking up injuries.
But Allan Dell, for one, sees things differently. The loosehead prop, who will pack down in the front row alongside Stuart McInally and WP Nel, is relishing the big-match atmosphere. He believes that taking on one of the world’s toughest packs will help ensure that he and his team-mates are properly switched on for this one, and that players cannot afford to go into a game with the thought of avoiding injury at the front of their minds.
“It’s exciting going over there to play them,” the London Irish forward said. “It’s like when we went to play Fiji – it’s a new challenge and it’s good we’re going there. I’ve never been to Georgia so it will be a good experience. It will be good preparation for us.
“The Georgians will have a lot to prove with all the talk of them potentially joining the Six Nations. They’re going to want to prove they can compete. They’ve filled out their stadium, so they’ll have the backing of some very passionate fans.
“But we know we’ll play Japan in front of a pretty hostile home crowd in the World Cup, so this just adds that something extra to the game at the weekend. You want to play away, you want to experience different stadiums and I think it will be a good build-up for us.
“You don’t want to play in places that are quiet and dull. You feed off a loud, hostile atmosphere and it makes it interesting.
“It’s a Test match at the end of the day. People label it a pre-season game, but we know what it is. It’s about getting your fitness and your attitude right. You need to get into your rhythm and not try and over-play things. There’s no point in trying to do something you wouldn’t normally do just because you might think it will get you on that plane.”
Ticket to Ride
In any case, Dell already has a very good chance of being on that plane. He may have been deemed surplus to requirements at Edinburgh, but the battle to be first-choice loosehead is surely between him and Gordon Reid. Jamie Bhatti is on the bench against the Georgians rather than Reid, but if Townsend opts to take only five props, the new Edinburgh signing is the one who could miss out. In that event, Dell and Reid would be joined by tightheads Nel, Zander Fagerson and Simon Berghan, with the latter also being loosehead cover, as he was – even if for only a dozen minutes – in the first warm-up match against France.
Still, needless to say, Dell is taking nothing for granted. While, as he said, he will resist the temptation to do anything out of the ordinary in a bid to impress, he is convinced that he will have to put in a strong performance, and that he cannot merely look on the match as one to get out of the way.
“If you think like that, that’s when you get hurt,” the 27-year-old continued. “If you’re going in half-hearted or you’re trying to hold something back, then you’re going to get smashed. It’s a physical sport; you’re going to pick up injuries. Hopefully that’s not the case this weekend and you certainly can’t think like that.
“We have such a competitive squad with only a few places up for grabs. We want to play well, we want to go over there, put in a performance and make sure your name is in the hat.”
Leaders of the Pack
The Georgian pack has acquired a reputation for brute strength in recent seasons, but, while respecting their sheer physicality, Dell is sure there is a lot more to them than that. “A lot of the packs we play against have a lot of big guys in there,” he continued. “We are facing a very strong, physical pack at the weekend so we know what’s coming.
“Given how physical they are, we need to be going there with the right attitude. We need to be fronting up, otherwise you’re going to come off second best. You need to be up for every game mentally. It doesn’t really change how you hype yourself up.
“We have a lot of respect for the Georgian pack. But it’s going to be a fun game. I hear the weather is to be miserable, so we’re looking forward to that.
“They’re big guys, but they’re skilful too. I saw a video of one of the Georgians playing for Stade Francais. He scored a try from 30 or 40 metres out. They are skilful men with the ball in hand.
“A lot of the forwards play in the Top 14. They have a big reliance on the collective unit. Everyone needs to work together and whoever they put in there it’s going to be physical and it’s going to be a big challenge for us to disrupt it.”