SCOTLAND assistant coach Mike Blair has indicated that any one of the starting back-row which made such a big impact against Samoa on Monday could now double-up in back-to-back matches against Russia and Japan next week.
Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie and Blade Thomson travelled to Japan behind John Barclay, Hamish Watson (now injured) and Ryan Wilson in the back-row pecking order, but after a heavy defeat in the tournament opener against Ireland (when Scotland failed to impose themselves at set-piece or breakdown), head coach Gregor Townsend opted for wholesale change at the back of the scrum.
It proved to be an inspired selection, with the three younger men bringing real energy and menace to the pack, setting the tone for a convincing victory in really tough conditions. In the space of 80-minutes, the natural order of this squad was turned on its head.
There is now a strong argument for resting the young bucks against Russia to keep them fresh for the do-or-die clash against Japan four days later. That means Barclay and Wilson getting a chance to redeem themselves, and hooker Fraser Brown is also able to fill in at open-side flanker if required, however Blair says that Bradbury, Ritchie and Thomson are all capable of playing two games with just a four day gap if required.
“I think a lot of teams are in the same situation at this World Cup where there’s a four or five-day turnaround. That’s how the tournament was structured and we’ve known that for a long time so we’ve had that in our minds,” he said. “It doesn’t keep everyone on a level playing field but that’s what happens so we’ll deal with it.
“It’s going to be a challenge but also you look at those players who played on Monday night and they are exceptional. Maggy [Bradbury] pulled up a little bit with maybe 15 minutes or so to go but he hasn’t played a huge amount of rugby and he looked excellent in that first 65 minutes.
“Blade as well, I believe it’s the first time he’s played 80 minutes in four or five seasons or something like that, and he looked brilliant throughout. With Jamie, there was a chance he wasn’t going to be able to make it with the [cheek] surgery he had, and he was exceptional as well.
“These are guys who are able to back-up games; it’s not the ideal situation and there are potentially other positions it might have to happen in as well, but we are really confident in the ability of these guys to back-up.”
Barclay was struggling with a tight groin last week but is on the mend now. “He was back in training a couple of days ago and he seemed to get through okay, so he’ll be cranking up the stuff he’s doing in the next couple of days,” explained Blair.
Apart from that, and Allan Dell working his way through the head injury return to play protocol, there is no major injury concerns in the squad at the moment.
“We have obviously got a bit of momentum from the Samoa game there,” added Blair. “We were really pleased with our start in that game, that gives us momentum. I think we had seven or eight phases of really good defence with our second-rows pushing up and making big hits two or three times, pushing them back so that they kicked the ball to us, so we could transition and get on top of them. That is a great way to start the game.
“The plan was to keep them to zero for the first quarter, that extended to the 80, but being able to apply that pressure meant not giving them any easy ins to the game.
“Against Ireland, we had a firm belief in what we were trying to do against them and felt that if we had executed that, we would have won the game. It didn’t work out like that and we are really disappointed. Rugby is about basics and if you do the basics really well, you are going to be in every game you play.”