|Rugby World Cup Pool A: Scotland v Russia|
|Venue: Shizuoka Stadium, Fukuroi City Date: Wednesday, 9 October Kick-off: 08:15 BST|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and BBC Radio Scotland, live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
You didn’t need to have the investigative powers of Jim Taggart to know that Ben Toolis’ World Cup has felt like murder to the big second-row. It was all there in his unsmiling face and his big angry head.
Toolis is one of five Scottish players who have yet to see a minute’s action in Japan – George Turner, Pete Horne, Blair Kinghorn and Henry Pyrgos being the others. All five will enter the fray when Scotland play Russia in Shizuoka on Wednesday and clearly Toolis feels that the opportunity is overdue.
“If I am being honest, it’s been really frustrating,” he said on Saturday in Kobe. “For the last couple of years the main goal has been to get to a World Cup. You put in the hard work, you play consistently well, but there is a lot of competition in the second-row. That’s sport at the end of the day and boys are going to miss out.
“I don’t think my performance levels have dropped. I feel like I’ve played consistently well. I can be very hard on myself when I know I’ve not been performing. I’ve had stages in my career where I haven’t been playing well and you have to be honest with yourself. This time I don’t feel as though I have had a dip in form.
“You have to be a good team mate at the point and make sure everyone else has prepared well. It’s tough, but you have to try and help the team get a result and that’s what I have been trying to do. Hopefully I will get my opportunity on Wednesday.”
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Toolis came here as third choice second-row behind Jonny Gray and Grant Gilchrist but he’s dropped a place in the pecking order after the elevation of Scott Cummings, who has appeared off the bench in both of Scotland’s games so far.
That was something of a surprise given that Toolis played in four of the five games in the Six Nations just gone, starting against Italy and England – he played 80 minutes at Twickenham – and featured in three of the four warm-up games. Toolis started against France in Nice and played poorly, along with everybody else, but he bounced back and played strongly in the win against Georgia in Tbilisi a fortnight later, scoring a try into the bargain.
Toolis is a tough player, but Cummings offers something different. A little more footwork, a little carrying, a little more dynamism with ball in hand. The older man is on a mission, though.
“I have been playing well, Gregor (Townsend) just wanted something different off the bench. Grant and Jonny have been playing really well. You take confidence from the fact that all the second rows are good players. It’s tough, but that’s life.
“You do get feedback from the coaches, but it’s not been with anything I have done wrong. They’ve just been rewarding other boys. I haven’t been disappointed with what I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing the same for the last couple of years. I feel as though I’m on top of my game and I need to make sure I’m not too hard on myself for something I haven’t done wrong.”
His views were not delivered in rant mode – Toolis is a measured individual – but there was no mistaking his irritation. Townsend now appears to have a fired-up player with a steely focus on showing what he’s made of. That’s no bad thing for the Russia game, Russia being a team of fired-up players with a steely focus on showing what they’re made of. They won’t deny Scotland a winning bonus point but on current form they’re likely to make the Scots work hard to get it.
Demotion rankles with Toolis
Toolis has 21 caps and has been pretty much a mainstay in a match day 23 for much of the last few years. On top of playing in three warm-up games and four Six Nations matches, he was involved in two of the four November internationals and all three of the games in last year’s summer tour in Canada, USA and Argentina.
The demotion has rankled with him, but he said he has to stay positive. “I know that things can change really quickly. You see boys playing for other countries and when they get back in the team they’re outstanding. If you’re negative the whole time you wouldn’t be ready to go straight back in there. You just have to stay as positive as you can. I’ll keep doing what I am doing.
“It’s something that’s a mental skill. As you grow up you want to play professional rugby and do the best you can. You think a few years ago, if you’d been in this position you would be completely stoked, but as you get more and more you want more and more.”
His chance will come in a much-changed Scotland side due to be named on Monday. Toolis is likely to start in the second-row with the player who has usurped him from the first-choice squad, Cummings. It’s possible that Townsend will make 14 changes for the Russia game with Darcy Graham appearing to be the one in the frame to go again after starting against Samoa.
Many frontliners will be held in reserve, or given a break entirely, with an eye on the do-or-die game with Japan just four days later.
“You need to take every opportunity and that’s the way it is,” said Toolis. “You see it all over the world – players maybe have missed out and come straight back in and have had a great game. You see these boys getting man of the match awards and you need to use that as fuel.”
Toolis is not lacking in motivation, that’s as plain as the frown on his face.