In Focus: Scotland

Scotland under Gregor Townsend have proven time and again that, when they are at their best, they can beat any side in world rugby.

Scotland under Gregor Townsend have proven time and again that, when they are at their best, they can beat any side in world rugby.

You don’t put 50 points past Australia or score six tries at Twickenham during this year’s Guinness Six Nations without having world-class talent in your side.

But the question on the eve of the 2019 Rugby World Cup is can they find the consistency to match their class?

They came within a whisker of the semi-finals four years ago in England, but this time in Japan they cannot afford to look past Pool A and navigating their way out of a tricky fixture list.

Saturday’s opener against Ireland in Yokohama will be absolutely pivotal to their campaign – but they appear to be clicking together just in time.

An opening warm-up defeat to France was swiftly forgotten by a revenge win in the re-match before back to back wins over Georgia rounded out their summer series.

Now the real deal begins, and Townsend’s fast-paced gameplan should be well-suited to the hot Japanese autumn.

Stuart Hogg is probably the best player in the Scotland side but Townsend is blessed with serious operators all over his back three.

However, it is Finn Russell that holds the key to their hopes.

No one epitomises Scotland’s capricious nature quite like their No.10. On his day, there are few who can rival him in the world game.

He makes the Scottish backline sing, and while Adam Hastings is emerging as an able deputy, there is no doubt that Russell must stay fit and firing for them to have a real say in the Far East.

Stuart McInally may captain this Scotland side from the front row but the man to his right, tighthead WP Nel, is the cornerstone.

His scrummaging single-handedly turned the tide on France in the re-match last month after the second-string pack were taught a tough lesson in Nice the week before.

The Edinburgh man is not just a scrummager however, he has added deft touches and strong carries to his game and in Japan will be vital to lay a platform up front so that Scotland’s all-singing three quarters can get to work.

Much like the country he represents, Watson punches well above his weight in the Scotland back row.

Just ask Wales who during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations clash could barely lay a finger on him when he came off the bench.

That was the openside’s first game back after an injury lay-off but on the evidence of last month, Watson is firing on all cylinders again.

And with Jamie Ritchie carrying an injury, Watson is absolutely vital to Scotland’s hopes of matching the big boys when the going gets tough.

Townsend has made no secret of the fact that he wants his team to be the fittest and fastest in the world to match their all-court ambition.

Scotland attack from anywhere and when it clicks, they can shred any defence out there.

Russell’s range of passing means defenders can never afford to switch off, while Sam Johnson is growing into an impressive foil outside him at 12.

The likes of Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland and the tyro Darcy Graham finish off tries for fun if given half a chance.

But before those guys can get to work, it will be up front that Scotland need to lay the foundations.

A common criticism has been that they lack ball-carrying power in the pack, but Watson is a one-man pinball machine when in the mood and Blade Thomson’s long-awaited bow might just be the key at No.8.

No team carried for more metres in the 2019 Championship – according to stats powered by AWS – but their defence can be leaky.

Greig Laidlaw’s boot is a metronome from the tee but their own discipline needs to be spot on if they are to have a say at this tournament.

They have also developed a worrying tendency of starting games slowly this year.

And with Ireland up first, they must hit the ground running before what could be a pivotal final group game against hosts Japan next month.

Scotland’s summer preparations saw them split time between home soil and some warm weather training in Portugal.

After that they were in France and Georgia for two tough tests on the road in their warm-up campaign, either side of morale boosting wins over the same opposition on home soil.

Since arriving in Japan, they have been based in Nagasaki and have been welcomed with open arms by the locals.

Laidlaw is clearly the name on every local’s lips.

“Mr Greig is a hero wherever he goes [here],” admitted Hogg this week.

“It’s been great to see. There has been a lot of support for Greig and for the Scotland team in general.

“We’ve had some fun with him [in Japan]. Anytime we’re walking through shopping malls we shout ‘Mr Greig!’ when he’s about five yards in front of him.

“Everyone then turns around and mobs him. It has been good fun.”

Scotland beat Ireland in only previous World Cup meeting back in 1991 and it is against the old enemy that they kick start their campaign this year in Yokohama.

Next up is a trip to Kobe to take on Samoa eight days later before an even longer wait before facing Russia in Shizuoka.

Their fourth and final group game brings them back to where it all began in Yokohama and a clash with the hosts Japan.

Scotland will come into that game after only four days turnaround from the Russia game, but should have been able to rest most of their key lieutenants in preparation for what could be the most entertaining group game of them all.

Get out of that Pool and Scotland will have done a fine job – only in 2011 have they not made the knockout stages before – and then they can plan for a Tokyo quarter-final.

That will be against South Africa or New Zealand in all likelihood, but Scotland fear no-one and will hope to have momentum on their side heading into the last eight.

Ireland v Scotland, Sunday 22 September, Yokohama, Kick off 8:45AM (All times GMT) Scotland v Samoa, Monday 30 September, Kobe, 11:15AM Scotland v Russia, Wednesday 9 October, Shizuoka, 8:15AM Japan v Scotland, Sunday 13 October, Yokohama 11:45AM