New Zealand finally have enough respect for Scotland to put out as close to a full team as they have for Saturday’s second Autumn Test, but Scotland might have accidentally come upon a better team to build their own respect.
Gregor Townsend’s plan (hope?) to play the same team all the way through the Autumn Tests predictably lasted less than a half an hour when WP Nel fractured his arm against Samoa.
But Nel’s replacement Zander Fagerson and Cornell du Preez replacing shoulder injury victim Ryan Wilson might give the Scots a better unit for the world champions, who have picked their first team – not their habit at Murrayfield in recent visits – missing only the injured Dane Coles and the absent Brodie Retallick.
If the Scots have been studying two of New Zealand’s last three matches – when they sneaked by South Africa and lost to Australia – they’ll have seen how punishing, defender-sucking ball-carrying worked for both the Springboks and the Wallabies. Both Fagerson and du Preez do that chore much better than the men they replace.
Grant Gilchrist, brought on to the bench for the injured Tim Swinson, offers a third addition physical presence. Luke Hamilton and Byron McGuigan are set to get their first caps off the bench, and the third cab in the tighthead rank, Simon Berghan, moves up to the second slot.
Still, all the physical ball-carrying in the world won’t be any good if Scotland drop the ball as often as they did against Samoa and defend as porously. Jim Hamilton – ironically now a media go-to on all things Scotland after he took the huff with the press latterly in his playing career – thinks if Scotland defend again like they did last Saturday they could concede 80 points.
Townsend doesn’t think it would be that bad, but he takes the point.
“We realise if we don’t play well, we don’t defend well, then New Zealand are going to score points,” he said. “They have scored points against any defence they have come up against.
“If you go to Paris in the rain and put 30 points on France in the first half like they did, it shows how good New Zealand are and how quickly they have adjusted to playing in the northern hemisphere.
“There was different context to last week, the Samoan game got quite loose and open. If we give up the ball in our 22 like that this weekend we will concede that (many).
“We are not denying that, so we must make sure we don’t give any cheap ball to New Zealand as close to our try line as we did last week. But we will defend much better than we did last week.”
Fagerson is a better defender than Nel, as well as being superior with ball in hand, although scrummaging is a key element where he’s still inconsistent. Du Preez is finally returning to the form he had prior to his fearsome leg break three years ago and a troublesome ankle injury which followed.
“He’s saying he feels back to his best, he’s been outstanding in the last three Edinburgh games, and he had a big impact on Saturday,” continued Townsend.
“There’s more to ball carrying than just running straight and Cornell brings that. He took a pass of his toes and put Peter Horne in for his try, he’s got great linking skills. He also has defended really aggressively this year, he really stepped up in that area and we’ll need that.
“If we get six to 10 carries from Zander, we’ll know we’re doing pretty well, because we’ll be retaining our ball.”
The Lions caused New Zealand some problems in the summer, but Townsend questions the relevance of that already.
“Both New Zealand and Australia have got better since June,” he said. “There’s been I think eight or nine games since the Lions that New Zealand have played, so a lot of what was relevant back then has lessened, because their team evolves like any team.
“We’ve certainly looked more at their games of the last few weeks – the game over in South Africa, the game in Australia, and obviously last weekend’s game against France.”
And his own admiration for the way they play is well known.
“I think they’re a team that you always learn from,” he said. “They play great rugby; if the best team in the world just kicked the leather off it and didn’t pass the ball, rugby wouldn’t be such a good sport to watch. But they move the ball.
“The front five pass it more than any other team in world rugby. They pick a player at full-back (Damian McKenzie) who’s five eight, and he’s a wonderful player, so it shows you can be any size to play the game. And they play at a pace and tempo that really tests the boundaries of what you can do with a rugby ball.
“We admire the way New Zealand play, I love New Zealand as a country and the New Zealand people. But when you play any team, if you want to lose you’ll just sit back and admire their play, if you want to win you’ll really go at them.
“That’s what we have to do and that’s what we’re planning to do and I believe that’s what our players will do.”
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, A Dunbar, L Jones; F Russell, A Price (all Glasgow Warriors); D Marfo, S McInally (both Edinburgh), Z Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors); B Toolis (Edinburgh), J Gray (Glasgow Warriors); J Barclay (Scarlets, capt), H Watson, C du Preez (both Edinburgh).
Replacements: G Turner, J Bhatti (both Glasgow), S Berghan, G Gilchrist (both Edinburgh), L Hamilton (Leicester), H Pyrgos, P Horne (both Glasgow), B McGuigan (Sale).
New Zealand: D McKenzie; W Naholo, R Crotty, SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith; K Hames, C Taylor, N Laulala; L Romano, S Whitelock; V Fifita, S Cane, K Read (capt). Replacements: N Harris, W Crockett, O Tu’ungafasi, L Squire, M Todd, TJ Perenara, L Sopoaga, A Leinert-Brown.