THIS year’s Autumn Nations Series was always going to be difficult for Scotland given that they are playing world champions South Africa just six days after playing Australia next month, and Tonga and Japan either side of the big two.
Having just finished watching the Rugby Championship I have no hesitation in saying that New Zealand deservedly won it, but Australia improved throughout the tournament and South Africa won the final match against the All Blacks in a quite astonishing manner, easily the most entertaining match of the year so far and about as exciting as any game I’ve seen in recent years.
Any objective watcher of the Championship would have to conclude that Scotland have next to no chance against the Wallabies and the Springboks and that Gregor Townsend and the squad should throw all their energies and concentration into ensuring victory over Tonga and Japan.
Yet that is not the way Townsend will think, and I believe that while South Africa and Australia will be heavy favourites to beat Scotland, the men in blue might just pull off a minor miracle.
At the time of writing, Scotland are ranked seventh in the world in the official IRB rankings, with South Africa ranked number one and Australia number three. Japan, by the way, are tenth and Tonga 15th so Scotland will rightly be favourites to beat the latter two.
Scotland’s performances against the Wallabies and the Boks will be the real determining factors in how the Scottish squad is judged in its development towards the Six Nations next year and the tenth World Cup in France which is less than two years away.
The trouble for Scotland is that the Wallabies in particular have returned to something like their best form and have several players who are genuinely world class.
I’m a huge admirer of dynamic prop forward Taniela Tupou and I suspect he will be the cornerstone of the Aussie pack at Murrayfield. In the back row Michael Hooper is playing the way a captain should and I thought he was the most consistent player of the whole Championship.
Alongside him young flanker Rob Valetini is a stunning ball carrier, and at 23 he is still improving.
I don’t know whether Nic White or Tate McDermott will start at scrum-half against Scotland and I suspect their coach Dave Rennie doesn’t know either, but what a luxury to be able to choose between two tremendous players.
The return to form of Quade Cooper has boosted the Wallabies, and to say that he almost ranked alongside Beauden Barratt as the best No 10 in the Championship tells you everything.
Centres Samu Kerevi and Len Ikitau proved a very formidable partnership in the Championship, with Ikitau “dominating the No. 13 jersey” in the words of coach Rennie. Outside them, Australia have unearthed a real gem in winger Andrew Kellaway, dubbed the oldest rookie in the game. His hat-trick blew Argentina away, and Scotland will need to ensure he gets no space to run at the defence.
Rennie, the former Glasgow Warriors coach, grew to love Scotland during his stint here, but we should expect no favours from him. He is making Australia a hard and fast outfit, and the athleticism of the squad on the evidence of the Championship is back to the Wallabies’ best.
They do make mistakes, however, though not many, and in turn they will punish any errors by Scotland.
Whisper it, but I thought the Springboks beat the All Blacks at the weekend because New Zealand made several uncharacteristic mistakes. In their Championship-winning match it was South Africa which made costly errors, but in the final game under pressure from the world champions, the All Blacks gave away the penalties which ultimately cost them the match, Elton Jantjes kicking the winning penalty after the clock had gone red.
I was impressed with the way coach Jacques Nienaber changed the tactics for that final match. Gone was the kick and chase game that they have perfected and in came a dynamic running and passing game that was a joy to watch. If they play that way against Scotland we’ll have no chance.
It would be invidious to single out any Springbok when they are so obviously a magnificent team with talent in every position, not to mention the impact their players make from the bench. Scotland will be playing 23 outstanding Boks on November 13, and I am not in the least bit surprised that Murrayfield is already sold out for that match as people want to see Scotland against the very best, which the World Champions most certainly are at this moment.
Again I am hoping against hope that Scotland can improve upon the record of having beaten South Africa only twice this century, the last win being in November, 2010, when Dan Parks played out of his skin and kicked six penalties and a drop goal in a 21-17 victory that owed a lot to weather-inspired errors on the part of South Africa.
It will need something equally miraculous and perhaps another downpour or two for Scotland to beat the Boks and the Wallabies. Beating either would be a tremendous achievement.