WHEN Scotland’s schedule of World Cup warm-up matches was announced, there were more than a few people who questioned the wisdom of playing Georgia in the final fixture of the four. Do you really want such a fearsome physical test just 15 days before facing South Africa in your opening pool game?, they asked. And if so, would it not be better at least to rest the bulk of your first-choice line-up?
Gregor Townsend’s answer to both questions has been unequivocal: yes, you do; and no, it would not. “This is the ideal game before we face South Africa,” the head coach said after announcing his matchday 23 on Wednesday. “Their biggest strengths are the scrum, maul, and in contact.
“South Africa are one of the best teams in the world and their big strengths are also in the scrum, maul and contact. So, for the team and especially our forwards, this will be a great test for what’s coming.”
The other factor, which Townsend has referred to more than once in recent weeks, is South Africa’s playing schedule: they are coming into the World Cup off the back of a Rugby Championship, so will be as battle-hardened as ever. Scotland therefore cannot hope merely to ease themselves into the tournament as if it were a URC campaign in which some touches of rustiness are forgivable: they will have to be up to speed from the first kick-off.
Hence the selection for this afternoon’s match at Murrayfield of a team which contains roughly two-thirds of its first-choice line-up. Blair Kinghorn – nursing a quad injury – was the only likely absentee from the back division which is likely to start against the Springboks, before Darcy Graham withdrew yesterday with also a mild quad strain and was replaced by Kyle Steyn.
True, there are more question marks about the pack, not only at tighthead, where Zander Fagerson is set to return from suspension, but also at loosehead, hooker and lock.
Even so, everyone who has been selected up front can be relied upon to dig in and do the grunt work – something that will be very necessary against opponents who pride themselves on their set-piece prowess.
Certainly, after three open and attacking games – the home wins over Italy and France and most recently the defeat by the French in Saint-Etienne – it will be useful for Scotland to face different questions today. Edinburgh lock Sam Skinner, for one, believes it will be exactly the kind of contest that his team needs.
“It definitely is a chance for us to show a different side to our game,” the 28-year-old said. “They are a fantastic test for us before the first game of the World Cup, for obvious reasons.
“They will be brilliant. They have a really strong scrum and their maul stats are up there with the best in the world. We are going to be tested in exactly the areas we need to be tested in, and we need to make sure we front up and not only match them, but try and take it to them ourselves.”
Today’s match may be a rehearsal of sorts, but it is also a contest in its own right. And, after that defeat in France a fortnight ago, Skinner is convinced that getting back on the winning trail is vital. “It’s very important,” he added. “We want it to become a habit. We’re on the back of a loss at the end of the day, and we want a winning habit and a winning team
“Performance is the priority. But I think a win, psychologically and in terms of it becoming a habit, goes a long way in a team sport.”
Rolling the dice
That is the positive side of the equation. Clearly, if Scotland lose and pick up a few injuries in the process, the wisdom of taking on the Georgians will once more be question. But if the side win and come through relatively unscathed, it could do wonders for their morale.
Having missed out on the last World Cup through injury, Skinner is well aware of the risks inherent in playing a physically exacting match so close to the competition, but insisted there is no room for worrying about that. “We’ve put out a really strong squad and it’s my chance to put my hand up and give it a good crack. I’ll do everything I can to do so.
“I’ve been touching lots of wood and hoping it will be fine. Obviously it’s a contact sport and there are risks but you can’t afford to think like that. You’ve just got to go flat out, play for your country and hope you come out the other side.
“It’s important we get minutes under the belt and come into that South Africa game as well prepared as we can be. That’s the priority. It’s a brutal sport at times, and that’s the price that people pay sometimes. But it’s the right thing for us all to be playing and to be giving it a good go.
“It was disappointing at the time [when he was injured in 2019], but other players have these tough experiences and it’s just the way of the road. You’re not more special or deserving than anyone else, that’s just life.
“Being a professional rugby player, you have to learn these things and they can keep you pretty humble. It wasn’t easy, but I was able to go back to my club and get stuck into the next chapter of my life.”
What Skinner wants to do now is get stuck into Georgia, and then into South Africa, but he knows that his is one of the places in the starting line-up that is most in doubt, with Glasgow’s Richie Gray waiting in the wings and being widely expected to resume his second-row partnership with Skinner’s Edinburgh team-mate Grant Gilchrist. So what would Skinner himself tell Townsend if the coach were to ask him why he should be in the team rather than someone else?
“I don’t know about comparing myself to anyone else,” he said. “But I will always put my hand up to be in the team for Scotland, because of how proud I am to play for this country and what I believe I can add.
“I’d just be like: ‘Pick me because I bloody love it!’”
Scotland (v Georgia at Murrayfield, today [Saturday] 5.30pm): O Smith; K Steyn, H Jones, S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; F Russell, B White; J Bhatti, D Cherry, W Nel, S Skinner, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie (captain), R Darge, J Dempsey. Replacements: E Ashman, R Sutherland, J Sebastian, S Cummings, M Fagerson, G Horne, B Healy, C Harris.
Georgia: D Niniashvili; A Tabutsadze, D Tapladze, M Sharikadze (captain), M Modebadze; L Matkava, V Lobzhanidze; M Nariashvili, S Mamukashvili, B Gigashvili, L Chachanidze, K Mikautadze, L Ivanishvili, M Gachechiladze, T Jalaghonia. Replacements: T Zamtaradze, G Gogichashvili, G Papidze, L Jaiani, S Mamamtavrishvili, G Aprasidze, T Abzhandadze, G Kveseladze.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).
Assistant referees: Tual Trainini (France), Ludovic Cayre (France).
TMO: Thomas Charabas (France).