Weds 23 Sep Scotland v Japan, Kingsholm Stadium, 2.30pm BST
Sun 27 Sep Scotland v United States, Elland Road, 2.30pm BST
Sat 3 Oct South Africa v Scotland, St James’ Park, 4.45pm BST
Sat 10 Oct Samoa v Scotland, St James’ Park, 2.30pm BST
Odds to win World Cup
Too many coaches and pundits have been burned predicting false dawns for Scottish rugby. For a decade the words “brave” and ‚“defeat” too often coming together. From Frank Hadden through Andy Robinson and Scott Johnson and on to the man currently in control, Vern Cotter, early results have lifted the nation only for cold reality to follow.
Most recently Cotter, a Kiwi with the ring of success about him after eight seasons with the mighty Clermont Auvergne, had a good opening autumn in charge, evenrunning New Zealand close, only to limp out of this season’s Six Nations winless. Coming into this World Cup, the results of the warm-up matches also have been mixed – two wins (both against Italy) and two defeats – and yet there is a feeling abroad that Scotland are beginning to believe in themselves again.
The 44,000 at Murrayfield a fortnight ago were positively euphoric at the 48-7 beating of Italy despite the fact that the Azzurri failed to turn up (even their coach, Jacques Brunel, confessed he was bemused). Then a week later, after Paris, where a more pragmatic approach to a late penalty most certainly would have produced a draw, even the Scottish players were muttering that their Six Nations whitewash had been put in perspective.
So are Scotland on the march?
In seven World Cups Scotland have failed to get to the quarter-finals only once, in New Zealand four years ago, and the maths suggests they will again get to the knockout stages. In Pool B only South Africa, currently third in the world, rank above Scotland (10) with the Samoa match, conveniently close to the Scottish border at St James’ Park, Newcastle on 10 October, probably the decider.
Whether Scotland go on to the semi-finals – they have only once before; in 1991 when Gavin Hastings could have sent them to the final but missed a sitter of a penalty against England at Murrayfield – is another matter. With so many new faces in the squad, Cotter’s side could be either the big surprise of the tournament or possibly one that backfires.
Who knows what to expect?
For a start they are heavily dependent on the South African tighthead Willem Nel, who qualified so recently that he has had time to play only twice for his adopted country, while another newcomer, Josh Strauss, will not be eligible until the day after the tournament kicks off. Add a Kiwi flanker, John Hardie, also with one cap after arriving in the summer, and the left-field selection of the lock Tim Swinson, who did not play in any of the warm-ups and was not even part of the extended squad from which Cotter picked his final 31, and you have a pack with the potential to go either way.
Will they miss the bulk and nous that is Jim Hamilton, the lock with 63 caps in his locker and a nose for knowing where to make himself a nuisance when sides want quick ball? And how will the scrum stand up without Euan Murray, their most capped prop?
Behind the scrum things are more settled with Scotland having a half-back partnership in the captain, Greg Laidlaw, and fly-half Finn Russell, that continues to grow in understanding and ambition. The arrival of Russell, on the back of outstanding European and Pro12 rugby with Glasgow, has also filled a void left by his club boss, Gregor Townsend, when he hung up his Test boots and No10 shirt 12 years and three World Cups ago.
Outside the 22-year-old Russell, Alex Dunbar may have missed out through injury, but there is real competition for the centre berths between Matt Scott, Mark Scott and Peter Horne while the tussle between Sean Lamont and Tim Visser for a possible wing spot ended with both scoring twice in that final Murrayfield game and both getting seats on the plane south. With the doctor also signing off both Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland, a natural understudy to the Lion at full-back, Stuart Hogg, Cotter got most of the things on his backs’ wish list.
Rugby’s Scottish nationalists may be less than impressed at Cotter’s pick-and-mix selections, but the coach himself says he never gave the potential for a public backlash, particularly on the selection of Hardie, a second thought.
After all, the kilted Kiwi is hardly new a recent phenomenon and if the imports get Scotland through to the knockout stages then at least Murrayfield’s accountants will be pleased. When it comes to arranging tours it helps to be box office in the eyes of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, rather than also-rans from outside the world’s top ten.
“I believe in this squad, I do,” said Cotter when he announced his 31. “We are prepare to take responsibility for what is coming next.”
Scotland’s 31-man World Cup Squad
Props Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh), Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors), Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors), Willem Nel (Edinburgh), Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons).
Hookers Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh).
Locks Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Castres), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors).
Back-rows David Denton (Edinburgh), John Hardie (unattached), Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors), Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Scrum-halves Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh), Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester, capt), Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors).
Fly-halves Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors).
Centres Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors), Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Richie Vernon (Glasgow Warriors).
Wings Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (London Irish), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Tim Visser (Harlequins).
Full-backs Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors).