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Rugby World Cup: Townsend's 'fastest rugby' has Scotland optimistic

Scotland captain Stuart McInally
Scotland captain Stuart McInally leads an excellent side into the World Cup
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They say it's the hope that kills you but there's little doubt that Matthew Hannay of The Thistle podcast sounds a very optimistic tone in his assessment of Scotland's Rugby World Cup chances...

"The current Scotland crop is a far cry from the workmanlike-at-best squads that seem to have taken the country into previous World Cup campaigns."

World-class group has Scots optimistic

Whisper it, but Scotland fans are quietly optimistic heading into Japan 2019. At the time of writing, Gregor Townsend's squad are in transit to Japan, and there is a sense that they can do something special at this year's showpiece.

The Scotland coach has added the same verve and confidence to this side that he brought to his own playing days on the international stage. With an unashamed ambition to play "the world's fastest rugby", who could blame him given the players at his disposal? For the first time in an extremely long time, Scotland can call upon a number of genuinely world-class players, including captain Stuart McInally, Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson, alongside a group knocking on the door, such as Darcy Graham, John Barclay, WP Nel and Sean Maitland.

The current Scotland crop is a far cry from the workmanlike-at-best squads that seem to have taken the country into previous World Cup campaigns. There is also a sense of unfinished business from 2015, where he-who-shall-not-be-named (Craig Joubert) robbed Scotland of victory against Australia and a first semi-final appearance in the tournament since 1991.

Do mental issues remain?

Alas, as a Scotland fan, it truly is the hope that kills. In recent seasons a familiar pattern has emerged whereby the Scottish rugby public approaches Six Nations time in buoyant mood, sensing that perhaps the side can finally break its championship duck, and bring home its first tournament win since the 1999 Five Nations (did we ever mention that we are the reigning Five Nations champions?).

However, Scotland - who are [95.0] to win the World Cup on the Betfair Exchange - have never built a realistic title challenge, mainly due to the side's away failings and a sense that when the pressure is really on, this is a side that lacks those top two inches. Warren Gatland is on very few Scottish rugby fan's Christmas card list, but his concerns over the mental toughness of Scotland's players is perhaps warranted...

Warm-up games offer more hope

So will the champagne rugby that Townsend and co have promised deliver success in Japan, or will it be all fizz?

After an inauspicious start, Scotland should be reasonably happy with their World Cup warm-ups. A dispiriting 32-3 shellacking at the hands of France, with Scotland firing blanks, had the alarm bells ringing yet the performances picked up from there.

Crucially, Scotland managed to reverse this defeat immediately, overcoming France 17-14 in a far from pretty but much-needed victory. Georgia were always going to present a tricky opponent, particularly in a hostile Tbilisi hosting its first ever Tier One fixture, yet Scotland came through both home and away tests with flying colours, and crucially, few major injury concerns (although the promising back rower, Jamie Ritchie, may be a doubt with a fractured cheekbone).

If you had told the average Scotland fan at the Murrayfield Hotel after the Nice nasty that the squad would come away from these warm-ups with three out of four wins and a relatively clean bill of health, they would likely have bitten your hand off (or maybe bought you a pint of Tennents).

Russell and Hogg key men

If Scotland can impose themselves on a game, win front foot ball and unleash the likes of Russell, Hogg and Hamish Watson, then there are few sides who can match their all-action style. In recent times, this has led to victories over every single Tier One nation, with the exception of New Zealand, who Scotland still managed to push close in an excellent test match at Murrayfield in 2018.

Finn Russell, the former stonemason who now plies his trade at Racing 92 in France, is critical to how Scotland want to play the game. He is the ultimate risk-taker, prepared to throw the outrageous offload and dink that cheeky chip, even from his own five metre line, and appears unfazed on the biggest stage. His two most recent performances against England, which largely brought the Calcutta Cup to the Murrayfield trophy cabinet, firmly demonstrated his importance to Townsend's all action style of play.

Scotland Finn Russell 1280.jpg

He is joined in the backline by fellow mischief maker Stuart Hogg, now firmly in the world-class category and a nailed-on Lions starter in New Zealand in 2017 were it not for injury. In tandem these two can terrorise even the staunchest of defences.

In the forwards there is a spine of dynamic and reliable performers that include hooker Stuart McInally, the anchor at scrum time WP Nel, the tireless Jonny Gray, veteran leader John Barclay (pictured below) and new kid on the block Hamish Watson.

Scotland John Barclay 1280.jpg

Watson in particular has made a name for himself in recent times as a whirling dervish of a ball carrier, highlighted by this year's defeat to Wales, where the flanker set a Six Nations record for defenders beaten in a single match and was awarded the Man of the Match award, despite his appearance lasting just 15 minutes. On current form, he is perhaps the most likely of this Scotland squad to really set the tournament alight.

Do Scotland have a plan b?

However, there are quite a lot of 'ifs' to the above. In recent years, Scotland have shown a worrying tendency to allow themselves to be squeezed out by bigger and more streetwise opponents, and a disturbing lack of a plan B. It is all well and good trying to play the fastest rugby in the world, but test rugby, particularly in the knockout stages of a World Cup, is more often than not about the finest margins and finding a way to win ugly.

There are also question marks over Matt Taylor as the defence coach: Scotland managed to miss 24% of tackles against even Georgia, a side whose attack was limited at best. As a result, Scotland have occasionally been on the receiving end of a handful of drubbings, most notably in Six Nations away fixtures. It is in these moments that Finn Russell can both amaze and frustrate. He is an excellent tactical kicker when he wants to be, but too rarely have we seen this used as a real weapon. Sometimes it would be better if we saw Finn dropping in the pocket and taking the three, rather than attempt that miracle ball.

Alas, you have to go back to 2014 to find that rarest of sights, a successful Scotland drop goal. While Duncan Weir (the architect of that drop goal) is not the most fashionable of players, there is a sense among some Scottish fans that more of a kicking ten would provide some of that plan B that has been sorely lacking in recent years. It doesn't help that the next cab off the rank at stand-off is the talented but still raw Adam Hastings, son of Gavin, who is also built in the Russell mould.

Group qualification is on!

At first glance, Scotland could have easily found themselves faced with a far more difficult group. While Ireland have come out on top of most recent encounters between the two sides, Scotland don't have to look back that far for their last victory against the side (in 2017). There is also a sense that Ireland do not quite look like their old selves and have once again managed to peak at just the wrong point of the World Cup cycle.

If Scotland can achieve parity up front and bring some tempo to the occasion, there is no reason to think they cannot pull off an unfancied result here. Russia and Samoa should be formalities, yet the Pacific Islanders always pose a threat and Scotland will likely field a full-strength side here.

The final group fixture against Japan is fascinating. The tournament hosts have made no secret about the fact they expect to get out of the group and see Scotland as their means of doing so. Japan have vastly improved over this World Cup cycle and ran Scotland close twice in 2016. And who could forget their famous upset over South Africa in 2015? However, Scotland are still favourites and should have enough to come through this challenge.

A potential quarter-final awaits against either New Zealand or South Africa, which is likely where the Scottish challenge comes to an end. However, if they can give a good account of themselves against far more fancied opponents then this would qualify as a successful World Cup campaign. Scotland fans are hoping that quiet sense of optimism grows into a tournament to be proud of.

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Get more Rugby World Cup 2019 tips insight from the panel on Rugby...Only Bettor, Betfair's tournament podcast. Episode one is here

Matthew Hannay,

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