Most of the discussion on The Roar has been about the upcoming Test series against Wales. For neutral supporters, it’s probably the pick of the match-ups between the northern and southern hemispheres over the next few weeks.
But of course, the first order of business for Australia is against Scotland.
It’s an odd fixture. Firstly, it’s a mid-week game, which is rare these days in the Test calendar. It’s a capped international but Australia have a number of players unavailable because of the demands of Super Rugby. It’s also a one-off, while the other home nations have all set-up three match series against southern opponents.
Understandably, then, there has been far less comment on the game beyond wondering how Deans will marshall limited resources. And hoping that Scotland don’t spring a surprise on the Wallabies like Samoa did.
So, to give a bit more balance, here are a few notes on Scotland.
Under Andy Robinson, Scotland achieved some promising results, notably a victory over Australia at Murrayfield in 2009, a tour success against Argentina in 2010 and a home win over South Africa the same year. However, a crushing 3-49 loss to New Zealand in the same Autumn international series was a reminder that the team was still vulnerable.
The 2011 Six Nations saw further disappointment for the Scots, yielding only one win, over Italy. A familiar problem was attack: they just couldn’t score tries. The World Cup was a chance for redemption but they went down to a last-minute try by Argentina and eventually also lost to England, despite having the best of the game for long periods.
For the first time in World Cup history, Scotland failed to progress to the knock-out rounds.
The 2012 Six Nations was even worse. Scotland lost every game and finished with the wooden spoon.
So Australia should have nothing to worry about against a team which has now lost seven Tests on the trot, right? Well, Scotland certainly finished the Six Nations on a low but they actually started the campaign brightly.
Again, they had the better of the match against England but managed to butcher some try-scoring chances which would have seen them to victory. They held their own against Wales until some foolish yellow cards saw them concede a hatful of points which lost them the game. They led against France twice but lost 17-23.
On the field, number eight Dave Denton caught the eye and is tipped by many to make the Lions team. However, and fortunately for the Wallabies, but he’s out with an injured ankle.
Lock Jim Hamilton will also miss the match: he’s on a seven-week suspension for fighting. Kelly Brown is another absentee in the forwards.
Still, there are some good players who will be on the pitch so let’s run through a possible line-up.
The front row shouldn’t be a problem. Jon Welsh has the tighthead shirt but Ryan Grant has sometimes been preferred at club level and could get the nod. Ross Ford at hooker played with the Lions in 2009, and will captain the side. Geoff Cross or Euan Murray on the other side of the scrum will complete a decent combination.
Hamilton is out but lock Richie Gray is fit, and his athletic style of play will be a threat if he finds himself in space. Look out for his try Six Nations against Ireland on YouTube (sorry that the commentary isn’t in English, but you get the picture!)
Alastair Kellock will probably replace Hamilton: he was captain for the day when Scotland last beat Australia.
Denton is a big loss but Australia shouldn’t underestimate the Scottish back row.
Flanker Ross Rennie was named man of the match against France, despite ending up on the losing side, and he could give Pocock a run for his money. Andy Robinson may choose Richie Vernon at number eight because he has good pace and will enjoy hard pitches.
Alternatively, he might go for John Barclay who can play blind-side or number 8. Barclay, along with Kelly Brown and Johnnie Beattie, formed the “Killer B’s” back row in 2010. Brown is injured and Beattie was dropped after a shoulder injury in 2010 saw him lose form. The appearance of Denton also kept him out of contention.
On the other flank, Alasdair Strokosch is the man most likely, because he’ll add a bit of experience which could be in short supply elsewhere on the pitch. Perpignan have just signed him up for two years. He’s a good, honest kind of player but faces a challenge for his place from Rob Harley, as the youngster has been in good club form.
All in all, not the first choice line-up but certainly not a bad pack. However, that’s been generally true for Scotland and yet it hasn’t helped them win a game in their last seven outings.
Mike Blair and Greg Laidlaw will be the half-back pairing. Blair is Scotland’s most-capped scrum half of all-time. He’s coming to the end of his career, having just signed a one-year contract to play for relegated French team Brive next year. He’s capable of fine play but has suffered dips in form.
He’ll be hoping for a few more big scalps before his international days are over and will relish the chance against the Wallabies.
Laidlaw has actually played most of his rugby at scrum half and is the nephew of the great Roy Laidlaw, who made that position his own during most of the eighties. Greig switched to flyhalf when his club ran out of options to fill the position and ended up becoming his country’s first choice after Dan Parks retired abruptly. He doesn’t have the biggest boot but is an intelligent player.
Joe Ansbro is back in contention in the centres. He missed the Six Nations though injury and Scotland’s back play suffered accordingly – if it makes sense to say that, given the lack of tries to date. Robinson may not want to rush him back, however, and Nick De Luca could hold on to his spot. Alex Grove is being tipped for a role but there are some other combinations available. Winger Sean Lamont has filled in before in midfield, while Matthew Scott is a young prospect many see as the best choice at inside centre and Robinson has indicated a willingness to start him there.
Scotland have been unlucky with wingers. Lee Jones is the fourth player unavailable for the tour, having pulled out with an injury. The name Tim Visser might be familiar in Australia. The Flying Dutchman is in good form, is fit and is in the tour squad. He won’t be facing the Wallabies. He now qualifies for Scotland through residency but the exact date of his eligibility is June 12th.
He is allowed to train with the squad but can’t take the pitch for the fifth June Test.
Robinson could play Lamont on the wing and will have Max Evans available. Evans plays for Castres, who still have club commitments in France, but is available to Scotland under IRB rules.
At full-back, Stuart Hogg took his chance when Evans was injured during the Six Nations. He was one of the few attacking threats Scotland had during the tournament and Robinson will stick with him.
Of course, Robinson has some new input on attacking play, having hired Scott Johnson in the role of attack coach. The Australian has only a week to work any magic which doesn’t suggest he’s going to have a chance to make much of an impact. At least he has more time with the players than new defence coach Matt Taylor. Taylor is still with Queensland and may not be able to join the tour at all. His appointment is officially for next season anyway.
Robinson had planned to take 32 players on tour but that assumed there would be a match against the Waratahs. Since that fixture was cancelled, Robinson trimmed his squad to 28. Even so, 12 of those 28 are either uncapped or only got their first starts in this year’s Six Nations so it gives you some idea of how raw they are.
In particular, it means the bench won’t be packed with multi-cap supersubs, so Robbie Deans is unlikely to be out-thought on that front.
So, all in all, Scotland are bringing a solid set piece, a couple of pacy big men in the pack who enjoy the offloading game, and a handy back row with a player in Rennie who can be a real nuisance.
Their backs haven’t threatened much at international level but Scottish teams can sometimes be difficult to break down as Australia have discovered before.
The form book suggests a win for Australia even allowing for the restrictions on selection and the limited training time. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the form book wouldn’t have given Edinburgh much of a chance in this year’s Heineken Cup either. In the PRO12 league, they finished second last with a record of six wins, one draw and 15 losses.
And yet there they were, contesting a Heineken Cup semi-final against Ulster. The way they lost it was reminiscent of the Six Nations: dominating possession and territory for long stretches but failing to score points
As many as half of that Edinbugh team could end up facing Australia. If the scoring bogey remains, then the visitors will have no chance. The Wallabies would be wise, however, to keep their discipline.
If they are too eager to score early, the Scots have the players to pilfer the ball and break from turnovers which could set the cat among the pigeons.