WHEN Gregor Townsend decided he wanted Scotland to play the highest tempo in world rugby, his reasoning was that such a style of play would give the national team the best chance of beating the biggest teams in the world. When it comes to playing Fiji on Saturday, however, the emphasis will be on structure rather than speed, organisation rather than improvisation.
Townsend, who is due to announce his team this afternoon [Thursday], will still tell his players to back their instincts. But the squad has also trained this week on the presumption that the looser the game is, the more chance the Fijians will have of upsetting the odds. That does not mean that rolling mauls will become the order of the day to the exclusion of anything more adventurous, but it does imply that the home side will take a more conservative approach than they tend to, especially at BT Murrayfield.
“We’ve tightened it up this week,” is how back-row forward Ryan Wilson summed up the change in emphasis. “That’s something we’ve spoken about a lot. Those 50/50 balls – we have to look after them, make sure we keep hold of the ball.
“But we’ll still be looking to play with tempo. We know we’re a fit team and some of them may be not so fit, so we will still be trying to play at tempo, looking to move the ball about. But we’ve got to make sure that anything 50/50, we look after it, keep hold of that pill.”
Having played behind Leone Nakarawa in the Glasgow Warriors pack, Wilson has seen plenty of evidence of just how dangerous the lock in particular can be, but insisted that he is perfectly placed to nullify the threat of the man who plays his club rugby alongside Finn Russell at Racing 92. “We know what he’s like. He was the European player of the year last year. He’s a dangerous player, but we’ll see. I think we can contain him. I can wind him up enough. I know his buttons. I saw him last night, so I put something in his water.
“He’s been saying that they’re all gonna run over Finn, because they play with him. The problem with the Fijians is that you’re not going to be able to contain all of them at once, because they’re all outstanding individual players. We have had a big focus, the last couple of days, on ourselves and what we have to do: go out and play well, look after the ball, don’t give them anything and hopefully come out on top.”
Wilson and Jamie Ritchie look set to keep their places in the back row, possibly with Matt Fagerson at No 8 and former Glasgow player Josh Strauss on the bench. With two more Tests to come against South Africa and Argentina, there are likely to be several changes today from the line-up that began in Cardiff, and as few if any players are likely to take part in all four of this month’s internationals, this one could be the best time to rest Stuart McInally, who captained the team against Wales. Fraser Brown would start at hooker in that case, with George Turner on the bench. In the front-row, Gordon Reid is available to play at loose-head, and Simon Berghan could alternate with Willem Nel on the tight, while Sam Skinner will be in contention for a debut at lock, possibly alongside Grant Gilchrist.
Behind the scrum, Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell should resume their partnership, while Pete Horne’s familiarity with Russell could be enough for him to earn promotion from the bench. But would the elder Horne brother and Huw Jones be too defensively suspect a combination in the centre? Townsend will need to balance that consideration with a recognition of Jones’ attacking threat.
Backs to the future
In the back three, Sean Maitland looks set to start on the wing along with either Tommy Seymour or Chris Harris, while the prospects of full-back Stuart Hogg completing a rapid recovery from injury appear to have improved markedly over the past couple of days. Certainly, Maitland involuntarily hinted as much when addressing a media conference yesterday just after Wilson had spoken, first by saying he had been running at 15 in training as back-up, and then by name-checking Hogg when asked about how to defend against Fijian wingers such as Vereniki Goneva and Josua Tuisova.
“I don’t play too much full-back for my club, because we’ve obviously got a couple of guys that play full-back there,” the Saracens winger said. “Last year, when Hoggy pulled out of the warm-up and I had to play full-back [against Australia] I was a bit shocked there because I hadn’t played in ages because of injury, so I was blowing.
“This week I’ve run a little bit at full-back just in case. Anything can happen – for example last year. I like full-back because you get involved a lot more, get your hands on the ball a lot more, but the lungs definitely hurt a bit more.
“They’re big boys,” he added when asked about the players likely to be his and Seymour’s or Harris’s direct opponents. “I’ve played a few times in Europe and in the Prem with Goneva and Tuisova and they’re dangerous players one-on-one in space. You don’t want to give them too much.
“Tuisova is powerful, short and stocky. When you look at his highlights you don’t know if he’s going to step you or bump you, so I’ll probably just take second to last and leave Hoggy . . . . um, whoever’s playing full-back, to take last man.”