FINN RUSSELL says that Scotland must be more clinical if they are to achieve one of the greatest Houdini acts in rugby history by escaping into the quarter-finals from a World Cup pool containing both the number one ranked side on the planet (Ireland) and the reigning global champions/number two side on the planet (South Africa).
The talismanic stand-off returned to somewhere close to his imperious best as his side ran in seven tries to kick-start their World Cup campaign against Tonga in Nice last [Sunday] night, but their 28 point margin of victory fell some way short of the 59-16 margin (43-points) achieved by Ireland against the same opposition in Nantes eight days earlier.
Scotland now have a points differential of +13 after two games, compared to +122 for Ireland and +86 for South Africa after three games each. They should make some in-roads into that with their match in hand against pool minnows Romania (who have already lost 82-8 to Ireland and 76-0 to South Africa) in Lille next Saturday, but it is an awful lot of ground to make up on the off chance that Scotland manage to beat Ireland and all three of those teams finish up on the same number of match points.*
* In that scenario, head-to-head results – the second criteria behind pool points for deciding final rankings – would be thrown out the window because all three teams would have won a match and lost a match against each other, so it will come down to points difference to select the pool winner, then revert back to head to head between the two other sides to decide the pool runner up.
Of course, that assumes that Scotland have a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Ireland – who they have not managed to better them in their last eight meetings (average losing margin of 14), and who are flying high after Saturday night’s remarkable win over South Africa in Paris which was their 16th straight win on the bounce. If they are to do that, then Scotland will need to be razor sharp in attack for 80 minutes, which wasn’t the case against Tonga.
“We’re happy with the result, we got the bonus-point we needed to keep us alive but there were a lot of missed chances out there and we’re going to have to be a lot better in the next two games if we’re going to progress in the tournament,” agreed Russell, standing in on media duties for concussed captain Jamie Ritchie straight after the Tonga match. “There are a lot of work-ons there. We’re happy but I think when we watch it back we’ll be a bit frustrated with the chances we left out there.
“Seven different try-scorers is great but I think we left five or six chances out there potentially,” he added. “It’s great we’re getting balls out wide, the backs scored a few tries, we got a driving maul try which is really pleasing as well but there were times when we got to five metres from the line and we’ve got to do a lot better there.
“I think we need to be a lot harder on ourselves in training and in games. If we want to progress in this tournament we need to be a lot better than that. It doesn’t matter if there’s one guy that scores seven tries or seven individuals, it’s a team effort. We need to up it.”
Scotland will move from their camp for the last month just outside Valbonne (30km from Nice on France’s Cote d’Azur) to Lille in the north of the country on Thursday morning, ahead of playing Romania on Saturday.
“Ideally for us, South Africa would have won [against Ireland] but we know what we need to do now,” said Russell. “The game being last night [Saturday] meant we knew what we had to do today and going into the Romania game what we needed to get to have that final game against Ireland in Paris.
“I don’t think it’s changed too much for us because after South Africa, we were always going to have to go and beat Ireland. We knew at the start this was potentially a situation we could be in.
“It’s always going to be tough against Tonga, they’re big boys who want to put good shots in,” added Russell. “Thankfully they didn’t put as much pressure on me as I thought they would so it allowed me a bit more time on the ball, which was nice. It’s always a physical game, but maybe more so for the forwards and centres than it was for me.
“I wouldn’t say I needed it. The South Africa game was always going to be like that because they’re so physical and strong and their defence is slightly different to most teams. The week after South Africa was very frustrating because we should have been better but I think we were all waiting for this game to get back into it because having a two-week break during a competition is quite long.
“The boys were really pleased to get out there again. I wouldn’t say we needed space on the ball but different teams have different defences and show you different pictures. You just have to adapt to playing different teams.”
Tonan No 8 Vaea Fifita was red-carded at the end of the match for a dangerous clear-out on Russell, but the Scots playmaker was happy to let his coach, Gregor Townsend, take centre stage in express frustration at the inconsistency in the way such incidents are being referees.
“I was part of the maul, it’s not often I find myself in there! That’s not my job to look at whether it’s a yellow or red card. I leave that to the officials. We’re not going to play Tonga again at this tournament so it’s nothing for us to worry about.”