SCOTLAND should beat Georgia tonight with something to spare. They won both legs of last year’s double-header in relative comfort, and nothing suggests there has since been any significant shift in the balance of power.
Even so, the home team will go into this warm-up game at BT Murrayfield in a fairly cautious frame of mind. Knowing the Georgians’ fondness for the fray up front, Scotland’s coaching team are putting the emphasis on a sensible, safety-first start to the match, albeit in the hope that they can in time allow their backs some exuberant self-expression.
“We want to play a fast, attacking game,” assistant coach John Dalziel said yesterday (Thursday). “But to do so we need a real parity up front, a solid set piece, and to be squeaky clean around contact so that we generate really quick ball for our ball-carriers and play in the style that we’ve become renowned for.
“Our game has to be underpinned by a physical approach to the set piece. We want to be better at the lineout maul and lineout, contact work and all the unseen work.
“They are a team who are very passionate and very committed in terms of the physical confrontation around the set piece, but also at the breakdown. This is the first international since March and the interpretations around the breakdown have changed in favour of defensive teams. We have looked at that and as a first game back this is probably the perfect fixture for us.”
Dalziel is surely right, on paper at least, to see this warm-up match as the ideal preparation both for next weekend’s Six Nations game against Wales and then for the Nations Cup – a tournament in which Georgia will also take part, though not in Scotland’s pool. Although without Jonny Gray, Stuart Hogg and Sam Skinner, all of whom are on Premiership Final duty for Exeter, the home team looks strong, well balanced, and built to put in a calm, commonsensical performance.
If debutant winger Duhan van der Merwe gets a decent opening early on, we may just see the script rewritten in favour of something more improvised. But for the past year and more, head coach Gregor Townsend has placed particular emphasis on patience and pragmatism. Given that, and given also that this is the team’s first outing since their home win over France seven months ago, it is more likely that the Edinburgh player and his back-three team-mates Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham will have to wait patiently before being given licence to cut loose.
“It would take a while for any team to break them down,” new captain Fraser Brown warned of the Georgians. “In international rugby you have to be on it from Minute One to Minute 80. You have to be disciplined in your approach, not just with the referee, but within your structures and have that patience to attack.
“There will be mistakes, as it’s the first time we’ve been together as a team for quite a while. So there will be a learning process for us, but we need to be professional enough so that we can gel together and keep that process in place and keep that discipline.
“They have a reputation for being big, powerful scrummagers, big powerful forwards – and they have that reputation because they’re good at it. They look strong and dominate games through that forward pack.
“They have a lot of guys who play [French] Top 14 rugby and they play with a lot of power and excitement in the back line as well. It’s going to be tough for us to meet that physicality and to try and get on top at set piece and impose our game on them. It’s going to be difficult across the board.”
It will be particularly difficult, given the 6-2 split on the bench, if the injuries start to mount up behind the scrum. George Horne and Finn Russell, the two backs replacements, are a specialist scrum-half and stand-off respectively, so some improvised covering will be required if there are injuries elsewhere.
That risk, however, is outweighed in Townsend’s eyes by the urge to win set-piece supremacy, hence an especially impressive selection of replacement forwards. Glasgow prop Oli Kebble can expect to come on for his first cap, Rob Harley will be rewarded for his good recent form by getting a run at lock, and both Cornell du Preez and Nick Haining will appear as back-row replacements at some point. Stuart McInally and Simon Berghan can also be relied upon to play their part late on in the front row, and, with those six forwards to bring off the bench and into the battle, Scotland should have enough power to dictate the shape of the game. Do that and all will be well ahead of the trip to Wales.