Rugby World Cup 2019: 'Scotland must click in defence to pose threat in Japan'

Has Darcy Graham done enough to earn a start in the World Cup opener against Ireland?
Has Darcy Graham done enough to earn a start in the World Cup opener against Ireland?

As Scotland's summer Test series ended with a victory over Georgia that was far less comfortable than the scoreboard suggested until 69 minutes, it was hard to shake the feeling we had not learned much about this side over these four matches we did not know going in.

It should not have come as a real surprise a team missing so many front-liners suffered from a lack of cohesion for much of the match at Murrayfield, while Georgia stepped it up after a largely disappointing display in front of their own supporters at the Dinamo Arena a week prior.

Everything now is viewed through a World Cup lens and what we see in this Scotland team is measured against what they will need to do to turn over Ireland in their opening game on 22 September in Yokohama. In that context, some of the stuff on show was concerning.

The Scots conceded 11 penalties, not a disastrous total by any stretch - the commonly held belief is a penalty count in the single digits represents a good day's work - but if a team as ordinary as Georgia can milk 11 penalties then what will Ireland do?

Case for the defence

When the squad travel to Japan on Monday, they may find the on-flight movie options consist of just one genre - defence videos. Scotland missed 24% of their tackles against Georgia. Although these stats can often be misleading - a missed tackle is not really a missed tackle if you are ushering an attacker back into defensive traffic - defence coach Matt Taylor knows any weakness in this area will simply not cut it in three of the four World Cup pool games (Russia should not put up much resistance).

Despite a first-half display lacking zip, the two tries Scotland conjured were crackers, and when they cranked up the tempo as the Georgian fitness was waning, the gaps started opening up all over the place in the final quarter.

In terms of individual performances, Darcy Graham did his case for inclusion from the start against Ireland the most good. His enthusiasm and willingness to get stuck into the physical stuff is infectious, and five tries from his first seven internationals is a superb return.

Gregor Townsend has long favoured the back-three combination of Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg and it is a trio that provides both attacking flair and a sound defensive understanding. But Graham has made a compelling case to break up the established order. It is likely to be between him and Seymour for a starting berth in Yokohama.

Scotland's form has fluctuated significantly over the summer, from the meek surrender to France in Nice, to the vastly-improved defensive effort against the same opponents at Murrayfield, and some neat attacking play in the double-header against an admittedly limited Georgia.

We already knew the Scots had the undesirable trait of being soft touches on the road, although the win in Tbilisi was a welcome end to a 14-month barren away record. We knew they were capable of demonstrating a tougher streak at Murrayfield, which they did against France. We knew Scotland without Finn Russell struggle to find spaces only he seems able to recognise.

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Scotland earn their third win in four World Cup warm-up matches

'The time is now for Scotland'

Consistency has been the great unobtainable for Scotland under Townsend. In 27 Tests, this is the first time his side has been able to put together three consecutive victories.

Even if two of those wins came against Tier Two opposition, Scotland now have some sort of momentum heading into the World Cup, something that would have seemed unlikely amid the wreckage of Nice.

The players and coaching staff have spoken about how that shellacking by the French took them all by surprise. But if a wake-up call like that was going to come at any stage of the preparations, better right at the start than at the end.

This Scotland team has had enough wake-up calls, enough days when they did not bring the required intensity to the Test match arena and allowed themselves to be blown away. Now we get to see if the lessons have truly been learned with the World Cup upon us. No more building towards a greater prize way off in the distance. The time is now and we'll see what this Scotland team is made of.

When addressing the fans from the Murrayfield pitch on Friday, Townsend reiterated his belief that Scotland can be a match for any side in the world on their day. Big wins against some of the top rugby nations in recent years has given credibility to that statement.

On their day they can beat anyone. To flourish at the World Cup, their good days will have to be better than anything they have produced before.

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