Despite a miserable Six Nations during which they finished last, Scotland have shown glimpses of promise during the warm-up games. Encouraging away defeats at the hands of Ireland and France followed up by an away win and a resounding home victory both against Italy in which the Scottish attack looked potent for the first time in a long while. But Scotland have a habit of turning in excellent performances only to disappoint after raising the expectations of their supporters.
This time may be different. Scotland have quality down the spine of the side, with hooker Ross Ford, number eight David Denton, scrum-half Greg Laidlaw, fly-half Finn Russell and full-back Stuart Hogg providing a talented mixture of youth and experience. Amongst the Scottish forwards there is a great deal of industry, with players like Richie Gray ensuring that Scotland will be a force at the lineout, and the aforementioned Denton providing an imposing ballcarrying presence. The backline will be overseen by the Laidlaw-Russell half-back partnership, who will look to free the dynamic Stuart Hogg from full-back.
The most surprising omission in the Scottish squad is that of John Barclay; the experienced openside was tremendous against Italy and has been an excellent player for Scotland when healthy. Veteran lock Jim Hamilton also failed to make the cut, announcing his retirement from international rugby after receiving the news. In Barclay’s place, Vern Cotter has selected John Hardie, a New-Zealand born flanker who arrived in Scotland all of two months ago, qualifying to play through his Scottish grandmother, as well. Another surprise inclusion is the uncapped Josh Strauss, a South-African born number eight who has impressed during his time with the Glasgow Warriors, but will not qualify for Scotland. Cotter appears to be preparing a more physical Scottish pack, and with the hard-hitting Samoans and South Africans standing in the way of a place in the quarterfinals, it’s not hard to see why.
The fixtures have been kind to Scotland, giving them two games against Japan and the United States that should allow them to work out any mistakes and go into the game against South Africa with confidence. South Africa will be a challenge that the Scots will embrace, but barring a massive upset, their eyes will be on the game against Samoa six days afterwards. The Samoans have individuals capable of stealing the game away from Scotland, the Northampton trio of scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i and the Pisi brothers Ken and George are three electrifying backs that will threaten to tear Scotland apart if they are not organised defensively. Scotland are probably the more complete side, but if they do not play to their ability, the Samoans have the flair and the talent to beat the Scots as they did when the two sides last met in 2013.
Key Man: Greg Laidlaw
When the Scottish backline struggles to put points on the board, it will fall to the boot of Greg Laidlaw to put points on the board for Scotland. In their likely pool decider against Samoa, Laidlaw’s kicking prowess might prove the difference against a Samoa side who have often struggled to find a consistent threat from the tee
Best Case Scenario:
Games against Japan and the USA prove a nice tune-up for Scotland, and after running South Africa close at St James Park, they save their best performance for last and overcome the Samoans to qualify for the quarterfinals.
Worst Case Scenario:
The Scots turn in a miserable performance against South Africa, and are unable to deal with the pace and power of the Samoan backs, as they crash out of the group stage for the second time in successive World Cups.