Australia v Scotland: Beating Wallabies 'would rival any Townsend achievement'
|Australia v Scotland|
|Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney Date: Saturday 17 June Kick-off: 06:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Sport Scotland website & BBC Radio Scotland|
There was a moment during Michael Cheika's press conference on Thursday in the Sydney suburbs when he was asked about the unfamiliar look to the Scottish backline, principally the Scottish back three, for the Test against his Wallabies on Saturday.
Cheika, the Australia coach since 2014, was a bruising number eight in his day, but he was always quick on his feet, verbally and physically. He danced around the question by saying that he'd just seen Scotland's pack and the formidable names contained within. He said he hadn't yet seen who was in the backline. That was an improbable scenario for a man who's renowned for his attention to detail, but it got him out of a hole none the less.
Had he said that he'd seen the full Scottish team then the next set of questions would have been about Greig Tonks, Lee Jones and Rory Hughes - three men he can't have expected to be named in the team. Cheika's offerings on those guys would have been interesting.
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- Wallabies are good, but so are we - John Barclay column
Tonks hasn't played a Test in nearly two years. He's spent the last season with London Irish playing Ealing Trailfinders, Cornish Pirates and Rotherham Titans in the second tier of English club rugby. He lost his place in the Exiles side for the Premiership play-off final with Yorkshire Carnegie. Tonks is a handy footballer, but it's a seismic step up for him on Saturday.
Although he's been excellent for Glasgow this season, Jones hasn't played for Scotland in more than five years and Hughes has hardly delivered a whole lot for the Wallaby video analysts to chew over either. He's had one start for his country and three caps in total.
Scotland have fallen short - agonisingly so - in their most recent Tests with the Wallabies. Back then, Vern Cotter was picking, largely, from a full deck. Gregor Townsend is attempting to do what Cotter couldn't while missing an amount of stellar names. It would be a mean feat if he was to pull it off.
You could construct a formidable backline from the players the new Scotland coach will be without: Sean Maitland; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Mark Bennett, Tim Visser; Stuart Hogg, Greig Laidlaw. Six of those players will be nowhere near the Allianz Stadium on Saturday. The seventh, Visser, will be sitting in the stand, injured.
Regardless, Scotland still firmly believe they have the artillery to beat the Wallabies. "This is the big league, playing in their backyard against one of the top teams in the world," said captain John Barclay on Friday. "We understand how big a test it is.
"Australia will move the ball and they're very skilful players. Defensively, we'll have to be a lot more astute and switched-on, and physical, to deal with them (than against Italy last Saturday). They run from everywhere. That's the way they play rugby here. It presents a nice challenge to us to try to clean them up."
Barclay says he hasn't noticed any nerves or anxiety among the inexperienced back three. Neither has he any fears for them. Townsend says the same. "I believe our team is stronger this week," was his comment when discussing the players who will take on the Wallabies.
Cheika is in a period of experimentation and squad-building. He's omitted some proven campaigners in order to take a look at what's coming through. Rob Simmons, Kane Douglas, Dean Mumm, Scott Fardy and Will Skelton are all impressive operators up front, with 216 caps combined, but Cheika hasn't picked any of them even though he's without the great David Pocock in his back row. Pocock is in the midst of a 12-month sabbatical from the game.
Australia won handily against the Fijians last weekend. They ran with their customary devastation at times, but there were weaknesses. They missed a high number of tackles and turned over a lot of ball. That's where the Scottish hope comes from.
If Townsend's back three looks light, the rest of it looks strong, particularly the pack and the bench. If it goes down to the wire yet again, Townsend has some experience and power to call on in WP Nel, Josh Strauss, Tim Swinson and Ross Ford, who is set to win his 109th cap and equal Chris Paterson's all-time Scotland record.
From Cheika to Bernard Foley, the so-called 'Iceman' who kicked Scotland to defeat in the last two meetings, to Townsend to Barclay, all believe that this will go the distance again. They've all spoken of how they expect another thriller.
|Scotland v Australia - last six meetings|
|Nov 2016: Scotland 22-23 Australia||Jun 2012: Australia 6-9 Scotland|
|Oct 2015: Scotland 34-35 Australia (RWC)||Nov 2009: Scotland 9-8 Australia|
|Nov 2013: Scotland 15-21 Australia||Nov 2006: Scotland 15-44 Australia|
The last five games between the sides have ended in three one-point victories, a three-point victory and a six-point victory. Three of the games were decided by a kick in the 79th minute or later. It's been an astonishing sequence of Tests, a rugby rollercoaster like few others.
"I was at the game in the autumn," said the Scotland coach, "and it was brilliant, a really good atmosphere. Being in the crowd, it really hit home to me how much the rugby team means to our supporters. For the World Cup match I was in the living room with my family and friends and we were jumping off the seat at the end when Mark Bennett ran in for that try. I'd better not say what we were doing when the final whistle went.
"Both of those games have been important in Scottish rugby history, especially the World Cup game because it galvanised people who are maybe not full-time watchers of rugby. And for the players, it showed how close we are to the best in the world. There was a frustration but now a determination to get over the line.
"What the players learned over those two games is that you can never count Australia out. If they're losing they have the skill to create something out of nothing, so we've got to make sure we have an 80 or 85-minute performance in us."
There is a sub-plot to all of this. News from New Zealand is that Warren Gatland intends to call for reinforcements to his squad this weekend. The Lions coach, it's reported, wants to protect his likely Test players in Tuesday's match against the Chiefs and needs more bodies for the match against Dave Rennie's team. That could mean a call-up for Finn Russell (against his future Glasgow coach, Rennie) if he shows up well against the Wallabies. The chances are that at least one Scot is going to get the SOS.
Townsend knows the score on that one, but that's not where his focus has been. He's spoken this week about the two seasons he spent playing club rugby in Australia in 1993 and 1995. He turned out for Warringah from the Northern Beaches of Sydney and came up against Cheika, who was one of the leaders of a ferociously good Randwick side.
Townsend remembers Cheika as a "really tough player and an aggressive character in a team that played the most ambitious, high-tempo, passing rugby I had ever seen". Cheika remembers Townsend as a "pretty nimble player who I was always trying to chase and get hold of, but couldn't catch."
Townsend says that buried somewhere in his subconscious there are probably a few things he learned as a player in Australia that helped make him the coach he is now. It's been a hell of a journey since then. A win on Saturday would surely rival anything he's achieved along the way.
Australia: Israel Folau; Dane Haylett-Petty, Tevita Kuridrani, Karmichael Hunt, Eto Nabuli; Bernard Foley, Will Genia; Tom Robertson, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Allan Alaalatoa; Sam Carter, Adam Coleman; Ned Hanigan, Michael Hooper (capt), Scott Higginbotham.
Scotland: Greig Tonks; Lee Jones, Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor, Rory Hughes; Finn Russell, Ali Price; Gordon Reid, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson; Ben Toolis, Jonny Gray; John Barclay (capt), Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson.
Replacements: Ross Ford, Allan Dell, WP Nel, Tim Swinson, Josh Strauss, Henry Pyrgos, Ruaridh Jackson, Matt Scott.