With their first win in 30 years on Australian soil, the vibe of the summer tours has shifted considerably. Playing Scotland on a Tuesday away from the traditional rugby heartlands of Australia always seemed to be a move with a tinge of disrespect for Andy Robinson’s wooden spooners. Now, for Australia at least, it is a call that has backfired, shifting the implications of expectation not just for the Wallabies this summer, but also Scotland and Wales.
Robbie Deans was happy to field six debutants against the Scots – three in the backs and two in the starting pack – whilst pursuing with the out-of-form Berrick Barnes at 10 and naming a new captain in David Pocock. With the wind behind the Wallabies in the second half and roughly ten minutes camped in the Scottish 22, their dominance had to be converted but a combination of a cold wet pill and dogged defence from the visitors held them out. In almost fabled Australia fashion, when push came to shove at a crucial scrum on the 80th minute, they creaked.
Reading too much into a Wallabies demise following the conditions in Newcastle could be regarded as a touch presumptuous, but the reality is that as has been known for some time, Australia’s pack still lacks the men to close out these games, or in the pack that started on Tuesday anyway. Add into that set of 8 captain James Horwill and an in-form Rocky Elsom (a rare sight currently) and then you have more grunt, but this was still a set of forwards with the rugged, experienced spine of Stephen Moore, Nathan Sharpe and Scott Higginbotham, not to mention Pocock.
Where Australia are now in trouble is that within four days, they face Grand Slam winners Wales at Suncorp in Brisbane. This leaves little time to integrate the undoubted changes that Deans will make this week, but also to recover from what will have been as draining a psychological defeat as it was physically. What’s more, the resources are far from overwhelming. There is front row security with Ben Alexander, Benn Robinson and Tatafu Polota-Nau in the squad, whilst Pat McCabe and Adam Ashley-Cooper are likely to return to the backs. From there however only untested youth remains – Jesse Mogg, Bernard Foley, Kane Douglas and Huge Pyle are all uncapped – leaving Deans with few options.
As for Scotland, winning will mean everything, regardless of the manner which it came about. The jokes regarding how the weather was exceedingly Scottish in Newcastle should not mask the fact that the tackle count from certain players was truly outstanding, Ross Rennie typifying this effort with 24 tackles made and none missed. Not bad for a side without a defence coach, but going forward aside from Greig Laidlaw’s boot they struggled in the wet to put away opportunities when camped in the Australian 22.
Granted the weather was atrocious, but it did little to dispel the opinion that Scotland are toothless in attack. If they encounter similar conditions in Suva and Apia then they are most likely to be carrying a curse, but to truly to dispel the doubters Scotland will have to score tries against Fiji and Samoa – both who picked up victories in the opening round of this weekend’s Pacific Nations Cup. They appear to have discovered a back row that works, a scrum that can front up and with Matt Scott at inside centre a long-missing creative force. Add in the prowess of Tim Visser and Scotland may defy the critics and have an unbeaten summer, but when you beat Australia, you surely have to put away their next two opponents.
Which leaves Wales, who now face the wounded Wallabies. Their hosts defeat to Scotland will either bring two outcomes – Wales will face a wounded beast that will do anything for victory in Brisbane, or one in the middle of a confidence crisis after losing to both Scotland and Samoa on home soil in the last 12 months.
The Wallabies’ defeat to the Scots automatically makes Wales favourites considering the fitness of their squad and the flashes of quality shown from many second string players against the Barbarians in Cardiff. Much like England in South Africa, Wales must win the 1st Test whilst their opponents are physically behind. Scotland have not only shifted the pressure from their own shoulders, but transformed it into expectation resting on the minds of their Celtic brothers. It is going to be one interesting Test in Brisbane, one that could be the platform for a Welsh series victory.
by Ben Coles