THE psychodrama pitting Vern Cotter against the man who may just have pulled the rug from under his feet whilst at the Scotland helm has been front and centre in the build up to Saturday and understandably so. However this game is not really about Gregor Townsend versus Cotter, although that showdown would draw a decent crowd, but rather Scotland against Fiji which is a whole different contest.
Fiji have played Scotland eight times in full internationals and won two which is a decent return until you realise that both victories came in the Fijian capital, Suva, on home soil. Fiji have yet to win in Scotland but they should have beaten them in Sydney when the two teams met at the RWC’03, and only a late try by the much missed prop Tom Smith saved Scotland’s blushes as they sneaked into the quarter-finals with a 22-20 victory.
20 years on, RWC’23 looms large in the headlights and Townsend looks like he has picked what he considers is his strongest available side for a game that Scotland should and probably will win, especially given Fiji’s week.
The islanders have suffered even more disruption than usual when attempting to put this disparate squad together. Regular fly-half Ben Volavola, a team-mate of Finn Russell’s at Racing’92, is nowhere to be seen and much the same can be said of his expected replacement Teti Tela (of the Fijian Drua Super Rugby side) who lost his (New Zealand) passport and only joined the squad on Wednesday.
His reward … a place on the bench with the 10 jersey going to Vilimoni Botitu, who can usually be found wearing the Castres’ 12/13 shirt, but at 24 he is young, well fancied and could be an inspired choice. A sevens gold medal winner at the Tokyo Olympics, Botitu is one of five Fijians who play their rugby in France’s Top 14, a league that looks several steps ahead of any European competitor. Also amongst that five is skipper, Waisea Nayacelevu of Toulon and wing forward Levani Botia who doubles up as a barnstorming centre/wing for La Rochelle.
Playfully dubbed the ‘Demolition Man’, Botia probably can’t match Hamish Watson’s technique at the breakdown but at 17 odd stone with pace to burn he may not have to. He is an obvious point of difference between the sides if Fiji can get the ball into his hands on a regular basis.
Elsewhere in the Fijian ranks there are four starters from England’s Premiership and five starters from the Fijian Drua side that enjoyed mixed results in Super League, but probably did enough to justify their place, and certainly offered a professional outlet for young, aspiring Fijians to showcase their talent.
The outstanding Fijian starter is Edinburgh’s very own Viliame Mata, thankfully fit again after an extended period on the sidelines last season, and an inspiration for country and club.
For their part, Scotland might be getting married with something old … Richie Gray; something new … Murphy Walker; something borrowed … the South African contingent; and something blue … everyone, I suppose.
It’s good to see Gray back in harness not only for his line-out knowhow but also because he disrupts the opposition maul so effectively with those long levers of his.
Against that, George Turner is wayward at the sidelines, less effective than Cherry or Ashman in the set scrum, and a liability when it comes to discipline. Whatever else they do, the Scots must improve on the 14 penalties conceded last time round the block.
Walker is one to watch, the next big thing in the front-row where he is equally happy holding up either side of the scrum, a very neat party trick for a prop.
Behind the scrum, Cameron Redpath renews his long battle with a seemingly endless run of injuries. He is undoubtedly the intelligent, New Zealand style second five eighth that Townsend would like in his side, if only because his kicking/passing and decision-making abilities takes some of the burden off Adam Hastings. (Redpath is perhaps less effective when playing outside of Russell who would, not unnaturally, be less willing to cede the decision making process to anyone else).
Scotland’s 10/12 pairing should be exciting to watch with the ball in hand but Vern Cotter may sniff a defensive weakness in a channel that is vulnerable to big breakaway forwards, like Botia, peeling off from mauls and causing chaos. Hastings is not the strongest tackler, often going high and holding on until the cavalry arrive to help him, all of which allows attackers to get their arms free and we know the Fijians will offload given half a chance.
Inside Hastings Scotland have missed a trick. Ben White is the exciting new kid on the number nine block that Ali Price used to be. Price looks to have been over-coached. He kicked incessantly against Australia and not very well either with the majority of his box-kicks going uncontested. It seems more likely that Townsend asked him to go for territory rather than Price just overcooked so many kicks, but we can’t be sure?
White simply looks the better all round bet at the moment, the Goldilocks scummy, not too loose like George Horne, not too structured like Price, but the best of both worlds and more of a threat with the ball in hand. Let’s hope he gets good game time to prove the point.
Ordinarily Scotland would want a slow, set-piece game against Fiji but I suspect that Townsend will have set the bar a little higher because his team won’t beat New Zealand by playing like that.
Yes, Scotland will squeeze Fiji in the set scrum and drive the line0outs if they get any change that way early on, but, once they get front-foot ball, the home side will want to test Fiji’s defence in the wider channels because the visitors have had just days rather than weeks to organise themselves and Scotland have that dangerous looking back three to unleash if the midfield can get ball to them in timely fashion. Expect Hastings to do his best Russell impersonation with plenty of kick-passes to bypass the physical Fijians lining up bodies in the midfield.
Cotter is a canny coach and, at least in public, he was playing down Fiji’s chances of springing an upset at Murrayfield:
“We need to approach this game with a lot of humility,” said Cotter in the build up. “We are a tier two team playing a tier one team that have a game already in their bag.
“We are slowly getting together but we want to get learnings from this plus we have the Rugby World Cup next year so it is really important that we put ourselves up against a very good team and I’m sure we will come away with individual and collective improvements to be made.”
You can be sure of one thing. Cotter will not be singing the same humble song to his players 10 minutes before kick-off. He will look his players in the eye and tell them to rewrite history by snatching a famous, first ever win at Murrayfield because … well, because every international team wants to win every match. No other reason. Honest.