Vern Cotter’s selection that sees ten changes to the squad for Saturday’s top of the table clash with the Springboks indicates one thing; he has his eye firmly fixed on selecting his number one team the following the week against Samoa.
The consensus from the outset of this Rugby World Cup campaign was the Samoan match was the key game to Scotland’s qualification to the quarter finals but given the impressive performances against Japan and USA, I wonder whether Cotter may have been tempted to select an even stronger starting line up?
That’s not to say that he has selected a second string fifteen as Frank Hadden did back in 2007 in the match against New Zealand when the then Scottish Head coach threw all is eggs into the one basket and held back his top selection for the pool decider against Italy. But I do I see logic in the way Cotter he has rotated his squad this time around.
What is evident though is that the injuries to Finn Russell and John Hardie has forced his hand but when you consider how this squad of players have been prepared there is a quiet confidence that underpins everything that they do coupled with a strong desire to play dynamic attacking rugby.
Included in the ten changes are five players who will start a game for the first time in this competition and each has a specific role to play. In the centre Richie Vernon adds a straight line ball carrying ability to the mid-field and he can make life awkward for his opposite number Jesse Kreil who will also be eager to impress as he fills the boots of departing Captain, Jean de Villiers.
Inside Vernon is Duncan Weir who has patiently waited his time and yet when he came off the bench in the final few minutes of the USA match he made an immediate impact and scored a try. Not only that, he looked sharp and continued to play on the gain line. His game management is right up there with Finn Russell but Russell has shown slightly more flair and invention. If Weir gets to grips with his accurate kicking game and mixes his play then that allows those around him to deliver.
At loose head do not underestimate Gordon Reid but he needs to really put down a marker in his scrum exchanges against Jannie du Plessis unlike Ryan Grant who disappointed against the USA and was replaced along with his cohort Jon Welsh after forty minutes in the match against USA. Vern Cotter does not do mediocrity.
The injury to Grant Gilchrist last week opens the door for Richie Gray and the Gray brothers will have a battle royal against two of the best locks in world rugby, Eben Estebeth and Lodewyk De Jager. What big brother Richie must do is attack every line out to disrupt clean ball from the top and if you cast your mind back to his first ever start in the 6 Nations in 2011 his ball carrying that day was outstanding. It is that type of performance that makes a difference.
Finally Blair Cowan must be shaking his head in disbelief. Cast from the original selection just spare a thought on how he felt then and how he will feel tomorrow singing ‘Flower of Scotland’ in St James’s Park, Newcastle?
I have said all along that Scotland needed two open-side flankers and as cover for John Hardie it will be interesting to see if Cowan can achieve more turnovers in eighty minutes of rugby than the team have achieved in their two opening games? He has been a good operator for Scotland but will have to be razor sharp tomorrow.
I have enjoyed Scotland’s performances during this Rugby World Cup and I have not been phased by the half-time scoreboards. If Scotland continue where they left off at the end of the second half against USA then that would give them the ideal start.
They have the potential to win this game but only if they play at their very best. We saw in the opening two games that when the team play on the front foot they can play some very effective rugby but if the accuracy is missing; if the scrum does not deal with pressure or the lineout defence disintegrates then unlike Japan or USA the Sprinboks will punish you.
South Africa’s performance against Samoa is the case in point. When they get things right, they are highly effective. You need to stop the ‘Boks’ at source. Their breakdown is key. If you let them use their physicality then they are highly destructive but Japan showed that if you change the point of attack and defend well they do not have an alternative game plan.
Both teams will be under huge pressure but the longer Scotland stay in the game and push for victory the less their minds will wonder to the following week.