THE world keeps turning. Scotland must now park their Cardiff disappointment and refocus on the Flying Fijians, who will pitch up at Murrayfield next weekend desperate to start their November tour of Europe with a bang.
Nobody involved with Gregor Townsend’s squad will be under any illusions that this coming Saturday’s match against the Pacific Islanders will be anything other than a serious test of the home team’s international mettle. They only need to look back to the last time the two sides met in June 2017 to see just how dangerous the tourists can be.
On that occasion, Scotland went into that final match of a previously successful summer tour high in confidence after a stunning victory over Australia in Sydney the previous week, but were outgunned in Suva with former Glasgow Warriors Leone Nakawara leading the charge to a memorable 27-22 win for the home team.
It was Scotland’s first defeat under Townsend and a chastening experienced for all involved. The memory certainly hasn’t faded in the Scotland coach’s memory. In fact, he believes Saturday’s opponents are an even bigger threat now than they were two years ago – boasting a troop of genuinely world class players who would command a place in the line-up of any nation on the planet.
“I believe they are becoming a major threat,” he said. “I really believe – and I hope it’s not in the next couple of weeks – that they can beat any team in the world on their day. They could have a brilliant World Cup.
“I see them as similar to Brazilian football. They have the best natural rugby players, and they’re not just all in the back line. We know that Leone Nakawara was voted the best player in Europe last year.”
“Peceli Yato is a back row at Clermont – and must be one of the best back-row forwards in the world.”
Townsend doesn’t need to mention Viliame Mata, the Fijian number eight who had been on scintillating form for Edinburgh this season.
“And then the back-line are all outstanding,” he continues. “I don’t think Niko Matawalu [the Glasgow Warriors winger] is in the squad and he scored three tries [against the Ospreys] on Friday night, which shows you what kind of strength they have.”
World Cup fever
Townsend went on to explain that he expects Fiji to be particularly dangerous this time around because it is a World Cup year.
“They’re at a disadvantage compared to teams like us because they don’t have a Six Nations tournament,” he reasoned. “They have the November series and their own tournament in June, but the World Cup is where they come alive, because they can spend two or three months preparing, knowing that’s their stage to do well.
“They had a really tough World Cup draw last time. They were in the same pool as England, Wales and Australia – and gave them all very difficult games,” he added. At next year’s tournament in Japan, they have been drawn against Wales again, plus Australia, Georgia and Uruguay – who they play at Hartpury College in England the week after the Scotland match.
Adding structure to individual brilliance
The Fijians have a reputation for combining high skill-levels with awesome physicality – but are not regarded as being particularly structured or disciplined when implementing a game-plan. However, Townsend reckons that is an out-dated perception.
“They’ve got really good coaches as well,” he said. “John McKee [a highly experienced New Zealander] is their head coach and some of their other coaches have worked for Super Rugby teams. So they will be very organised.
“We can’t take them lightly. It’s a huge challenge. We know that they’ll have circled this game as an opportunity to make a great statement.”
While Fiji might be evolving into a truly modern-day international side, it is their traditional strengths which remain their biggest threat.
“We’ve got to be accurate – that will be the number one thing,” said Townsend, when asked what he will be looking for from his team during the next week.
“They [Fiji] score the most tries – of any team in the world – off turnover ball. It’s a frightening amount – 66 per cent – most teams are under 15 or 10 per cent. So, if we give them that, it will be a tough afternoon for us.
“They also have excellent individuals who don’t require turnover ball, they just require any ball. Their set-piece is [also] much improved – they’ve got a very good front five now. But the big driver this week [will be] accuracy in whatever we do.
“The other thing we didn’t do well when we played Fiji 18-months ago was cope with the physicality. They beat us in the contact area. That was very disappointing that day.
“So, we’ve got to make sure we’re physical and accurate, play to our strengths, put them under pressure and put them into areas they don’t want to go.
“They would like it to be as open as possible – so would we – but we’ve got to make sure it’s open for us, not open for them.”
Blade Thomson, the New Zealand-born back-row, who qualifies for Scotland through his paternal grandfather, was expected to make his debut in Saturday’s match – bit now looks certain to be unavailable due to a head and neck injury picked up playing for Scarlets against Edinburgh on Friday night.
“I’ve been in touch with Blade, he was overnight in hospital.I believe everything is okay in terms of his neck but he did pick up a concussion,’ said Townsned.
With Dave Denton, Magnus Bradbury and Luke Crosbie all being released from the Scotland back to their respective clubs last Monday because of injury, Townsend hinted that a re-think of how he is going to manage his back-row resources may be necessary.
“It is a moving feast in terms of what you would love to do when everyone is fit. ‘Whether players can go through three or four games in a row is always in our thinking, but they might have to as we have picked up a few injuries in the last two weeks.”