Gregor Townsend’s Scotland to deliver attacking duel with Australia
The schedulers have saved the weekend’s most intriguing contest for Sunday. All too often in recent years Scotland and Australia have presented as rugby’s equivalent of bridesmaids, but the Wallabies turn up to Murrayfield on a five-match winning streak, including a swaggering double over South Africa, the world champions. And Scotland will field seven British & Irish Lions, which, by the standards of the rest of this century, must feel more than they know what to do with.
Gregor Townsend, a returning Lions coach (alongside another in Steve Tandy), welcomes back his captain, Stuart Hogg, who is joined by other headliners in Finn Russell, Duhan van der Merwe and Chris Harris. Ali Price, Hamish Watson and Zander Fagerson were already in situ for the 60-14 win over Tonga last Saturday. If Rory Sutherland had been fit, there might have been eight.
All of which should mean that the confidence developed by Scotland, which has grown in agonising fits and starts over what might be termed the Hogg-Russell era, is riding as high as ever. When a team are able to demote a player who scored four tries the week before, an air of confidence does naturally thicken. Kyle Steyn was player of the match against Tonga but must now make do with a place on the bench.
He was far from the only star. His mate on the other wing, Rufus McLean, became the first player born this century to win a Scotland cap and marked the occasion with two dazzling tries in the first few minutes.
How much we should read into the win over Tonga will remain a moot point for now. Scotland have made six changes for Australia, with those four returning Lions joining a fresh lock pairing of Sam Skinner and Grant Gilchrist.
But Tonga were suffering from familiar availability problems, their best players – even more of them than Scotland’s – not released by their various clubs for an international outside the designated window.
If only those problems were confined to last week. Australia have suffered a curious set of withdrawals of their own, even though the relevant window is now officially open. Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon have chosen to remain with their generous employers in Japan. The thinking behind their decision not to tour remains opaque, with Cooper and Kerevi declaring their love for the Wallabies without quite explaining whether this was their decision, their clubs’ or possibly even Australia’s.
The latter is the least likely explanation. Cooper and Kerevi have been instrumental in the renaissance over the past couple of months since their customary dismantling at the hands of the All Blacks. Their two subsequent victories over the Springboks were the latest to explode the cliche that the only way to prevail over South Africa is to beat them at their own game. The Lions notably failed to do that this year, but the Wallabies moved them around, All Blacks-style, with much success.
How delicious, then, that Australia, with or without the Japan Three, descend upon Edinburgh to take on the team of the Lions attack coach. We can safely say Townsend will have Scotland playing rather more ambitious rugby than the Lions managed. Bridesmaids Scotland and Australia might often be, but they regularly prove more pleasing on the eye than some of those accustomed to the garlands.
Australia, who are tying themselves in terrible knots over the latest tweaks to their eligibility criteria for overseas players, are rolling out some more exiles familiar from yesteryear. Rory Arnold, of Toulouse, with rather less than the stipulated 60 caps for an overseas player, will start in the second row, which should equip Australia well, should something less pretty be required. As might Will Skelton, lately of Saracens, now La Rochelle, who lurks on the bench alongside another exile, Kurtley Beale, whose 92 caps at least qualify him under the infamous terms of Giteau’s law.
One suspects Australia will follow South Africa’s lead by giving up on all pretence at encouraging their players to stay at home. Scotland, interestingly, have never bothered with such rules. They may not enjoy the advantages in preparation of the Englands and Irelands of this world, but there is a settled look to their first team and it is high on quality.
Dave Rennie, Australia’s coach, knows this well. His previous job was a successful three years in charge of Glasgow, taking over from Townsend. Just another little ingredient to spice up Sunday’s fare. The weekend’s rugby is far from over.