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Scots seek to maintain Autumn momentum

Scotland lock Richie Gray takes a selfie with young fans at yesterday's final training session at Rugby Park.
Scotland lock Richie Gray takes a selfie with young fans at yesterday's final training session at Rugby Park.

You don’t remember your history, you’re condemned to repeat it. Oddly, Scotland remember their defeat to Tonga two years ago very well indeed, but still may be condemned suffer it again.

The 21-16 defeat that cost Andy Robinson his job at Pittodrie was a perfect storm a snowstorm in fact, but not up to Buffalo standards for Scotland. The parallels between then and today’s meeting with the Islanders at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock, are quite startling.

Again it is the third of the three Autumn tests, again Tonga arrive bristling at being afforded just one test against a Tier One nation this Autumn and pretty determined to make the most of it.

Again Scotland, instead of playing in the wide-open spaces of Murrayfield have moved to a tight soccer ground albeit one named for the right sport. Again they are playing on a fast pitch which will suit the Tongans. The tourists, at last, have an all-professional team and arguably have made far better progress since their Pittodrie win than Scotland have.

There’s clear evidence of this in that with the right combination of results elsewhere, and a 15-point win this afternoon, Tonga will replace Scotland at 8th in the world rankings.

What we have at Rugby Park today is far from the “easiest” of the viagogo Autumn Tests it’s a meeting of equals in world rugby, with Scotland having surrendered a good deal of their home advantage.

The most notable element is that this is the first Tier One international in World Rugby to be played on a wholly artificial turf Twickenham, the Aviva in Dublin, BT Murrayfield and the Millennium Stadium are just part man-made.

The existing plastic pitches in rugby in the UK at Saracens, Cardiff Arms Park and Newcastle are all very different and get mixed reviews. It’s similar in soccer stadiums, and Rugby Park’s is a case in point.

For everyone who has a good view of this pitch, there’s a Jackie McNamara saying that it risks the SPFL dropping to the level of the League of Ireland.

Both sides have been restricted to just a half-hour of captain’s run on the surface yesterday, mostly useful for checking the bounce and how much of a stud it can take. This is an artificial pitch designed for the round ball game, very different to those in use for rugby, and is firmer and “quicker” than any of the players are accustomed to, even those who’ve experienced Cardiff Arms and Saracens’ Allianz Park.

Cotter said this week that he thinks artificial turf is great, but in the same breath described Murrayfield’s hybrid as “perfect” and that he’d far rather play Tonga on a mud field. Still, the coach thinks it’ll do his young team to move out of their comfort zone.

Tonga’s aim is to make that discomfort even more acute. They’ll attack the breakdown by fair means or foul, and much will depend on whether referee JP Doyle rules this area with a strict and shrill whistle.

Scotland haven’t looked at the tape from two years ago but there are certainly lessons to be learned. Three times they got across the line but were held up, and the Tongans ended up with three yellow cards but still won. This was because Scotland’s gameplan was to maul the Islanders into the snow-flecked turf, and when it didn’t work they had no Plan B.

Tim Visser says he doesn’t recall much of the match, probably because he spent much of it freezing out wide rather than he and Sean Lamont coming off their wings to lend their speed and power in midfield.

Also, the Scots then had Greig Laidlaw at 10, where his jersey might as well have carried a target to aid the big Tongan loose forwards to run straight at full pace. That experiment with the captain, mercifully, appears to be history.

Scotland had to repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot this way to lose last time. There’s scope for them to do that again the Tongans are outstanding at attacking off turnover ball but the fundamentals are a lot more sound.

Tonga’s are better as well, and they play a more structured game than ever in their history. But Scotland’s foundation has been hugely impressive this autumn.

Specifically the lineout a perfect 17 from 17 on their own throw this autumn, six opposition balls stolen is a significant weapon. One still wonders why Scotland persisted with trying to run out of their own 22 rather than clear to touch against the All Blacks last week when New Zealand were having such difficulty retaining their own lineouts.

Also, it seems the belief of this Scotland team is much more robust than it has been in recent times. They bounced back from the early shock of a gift try against the Pumas, they withstood the long onslaught from New Zealand last week to keep the match in the balance until the final minutes.

It’s a different Scotland to two years ago. Certain players Jonny Gray, Finn Russell for two are emerging as leaders even if they can still count their caps on the fingers. Scotland have players that will stretch Tonga across the park, even with four enforced changes.

There’s clarity of purpose, and nothing has been been taken for granted. If Scotland continue the way they’ve played in the first two games, the first autumn under Cotter should be wrapped up in satisfactory fashion.