By Peter Rutherford
(Reuters) – For all the buzz around Scotland generated by Gregor Townsend’s free-flowing brand of rugby, they are unlikely to pose a serious threat at the World Cup unless they find a cure for the ills that have held them back for years.
The Scots are a joy to watch at times, fearless with ball in hand and ready to attack at the drop of a hat, but razzle-dazzle rarely wins test matches unless backed up by stout defence and a solid, yet adaptable, gameplan.
Big, physical sides seem to batter and breach their defence at will, particularly when the tryline is in sight, while much of Scotland’s good work is often undone by self-inflicted wounds.
Throw in their woeful away form and it would no surprise if Scotland failed to make it out of a World Cup pool that also includes Ireland, hosts Japan, Russia and Samoa.
Scotland will need all the attacking flair Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell have to offer to open up those defences at the World Cup but how they react to adversity away from the comforts of Murrayfield will be just as important.
On their day Scotland are a match for anyone, capable of bringing down the giants of the game.
Their match against England at Twickenham in the Six Nations in March showcased the very best of Scottish rugby with six superb tries putting them on the brink of a remarkable come-from-behind victory.
However, the very worst of Scotland’s failings were also on show with a porous defence and fragile set-piece allowing England to snatch a 38-38 draw three minutes after the hooter.
That inability to kill games off has cost Scotland dear, especially at the World Cup.
In 1991 full back Gavin Hastings missed a penalty from just 20 metres out in a 9-6 semi-final defeat by England, while in 2015 the Scots were seconds away from a stunning quarter-final win over Australia, only to concede a controversial penalty that would send the Wallabies through 35-34.
Much of Townsend’s work on the training ground has been focused on tightening defence and cutting out basic errors but back-to-back tests against France last month showed he still has much work to do before Scotland open their World Cup campaign against the Irish on Sept. 22 in Yokohama.
The Scots trailed 7-0 within minutes in both games thanks to alarming mental lapses, but while they surrendered meekly at the Allianz Riviera on the way to a 32-3 pummelling they got the bit between their teeth in Edinburgh and claimed a 17-14 win.
It is anyone’s guess which Scotland will show up in Japan, the lambs of Nice or the lions of Murrayfield.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)