The big question for Scotland Rugby fans ahead of this World Cup is which version of Gregor Townsend’s side will we see in Japan?
Will we see the side that were on course for a record defeat at Twickenham during the Six Nations? Or the side that hit back in a glorious wave of attacking Rugby to secure an unlikely draw from 31-0 down?
The warm-up internationals saw the Scots kick off with a hammering at the hands of France in Nice, but steady progression followed with three straight wins – a gutsy victory over the French at Murrayfield followed by home and away wins over Georgia.
They kick off their World Cup campaign against Ireland in Yokohama on Sunday. To analyse their chances, BBC Scotland spoke to former Scotland internationals Peter Wright and Andy Nicol.
Do Scotland have a Plan B?
The counter to that has been a susceptibility to the power game, which has seen them come off second best in the physical stakes on many occasions, especially away from home.
AN: “I think they need a Plan B. The fast-tempo style can work and I think the firm grounds in Japan should suit it.
“It’s not just Gregor Townsend’s style, it’s the style of Rugby that brings out the best in the players as well and I think it’s the right one to adopt. When it works we’ve seen it to great effect, the second half at Twickenham being the obvious example. But we have to have different way of playing because you can’t only have one game-plan and hope that it works every single time.
“This is where the forwards have a massive role to play and in particular the second-rows. Look at the impact [England’s] George Kruis, [Wales’] Alan Wyn Jones and [New Zealand’s] Brodie Retallick have on their teams. You’ve got to have that ability coming from the second row to allow that game-plan to be a bit more narrow, a bit more direct, a bit more physical.”
PW: “I think the fast-paced game can work as long as they get the breakdown right. Ireland in the first game will try and strangle them.
“They showed in the second warm-up game against France that they do have a Plan B. It was a fairly dogged affair and they can go down that route. They’ve got to have all their key players fit to go down that physicality route – Hamish Watson, John Barclay and the front rows need to be making productive carries.
‘Scotland need to grow up’
Finding their best form on the road has been a long-standing problem for Scotland teams, with a total of just two away victories in 40 attempts against England, Wales, Ireland and France to point to in the Six Nations era.
They have won in Argentina and Australia in recent times, and their most recent away performance was an impressive dismantling of Georgia in the hostile Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi.
AN: “The evidence in the Six Nations is not very good at all and that’s why I think the Georgia warm-up game was an astute selection.
“To go to Tbilisi and play in a hostile environment against a team hell-bent on trying to spring a surprise, that’s exactly what is going to happen when we play Japan in the final group match of the World Cup. It’s a psychological thing playing away from home, it always has been.”
PW: “Apart from the Japan game, all the opponents they’ll face will be away from home as well. There won’t be that same atmosphere away from home as there is in the Six Nations. It’s probably more about coping with the weather and the conditions.
“If they are going to have success and get to the quarter-finals they are going to have to grow up a bit. They are not going to have that same build-up they get at Murrayfield for home games – pipe bands marching them in, the comforts of their own dressing room. They’re going to have to mentally front up and I think they can.
‘Russell is the X-factor player’
Scotland have several players – Stuart McInally, Hamish Watson and Stuart Hogg – who could be considered among the best in the world in their positions.
But there is one man generally considered to be more important to Scotland’s hopes of success than any other.
PW: “If Finn Russell doesn’t play, or doesn’t play well, Scotland will struggle. They are so reliant on his game at 10, he brings all the players into the game.
“I think he’ll bring Duncan Taylor, Sam Johnson, and the back-three into the game. He’s got the kicking game, he’s a real X-factor player. If he can stay injury-free, then he could be the difference in Scotland getting to the latter stages of the tournament, even beyond the quarter-finals.”
AN: “I think Watson is going to have an outstanding World Cup and show there is a different way to play with a number seven on your back. Stuart Hogg at 15 will have his moments and is a key attacking threat for Scotland.
“But Scotland are at their best when Russell is at his best. There is no way around it, there is a big drop off after him. Even if you lost Hogg, there is Blair Kinghorn, Sean Maitland, quality coming in that while not quite as good, it’s not a big drop off. Adam Hastings and Peter Horne are two competent players but they’re just not Russell. They’re not proven 10s at this level.
‘Anything but the quarters abject failure’
Scotland have gone beyond the quarter-final stage of the World Cup only once, in 1991 when they were edged out 9-6 by England at Murrayfield.
Traditionally they have run into one of the southern hemisphere heavyweights at the last-eight stage and found the going tough. They were within a minute of arguably their greatest victory when leading Australia at Twickenham in the quarter-final four years ago, only to be denied by a controversial late penalty.
So what would represent success for Scotland in Japan this time around?
AN: “The draw has not been kind because if we get to the quarter-finals we’ve got one of the tournament favourites in New Zealand or South Africa. Despite what the world rankings might say, I think they are two of the best three teams in the world at the moment.
“For us to progress to the semi-finals would take a monumental effort. I think we’ve got a better chance if it’s South Africa rather than New Zealand even though the Springboks are probably my tip to win the World Cup. Quarter-finals is the target and anything after that is an absolute bonus.”
PW: “Getting knocked out at the group stage would represent abject failure for me. But getting through means you then have to play South Africa or New Zealand.
“Getting out the group stage is the most important thing. To get beyond that you’re going to need a lot of luck, you’re going to need everyone performing to the best of their ability. I think Scotland will be aiming to get to a semi-final, but that draw makes it really tough.”