Chris Paterson: Past experience is vital

Chris Paterson: Past experience is vital

Former Scotland captain Chris Paterson reviews Scotland's performance against Russia and looks back through Scotland's Rugby World Cup history.

Congratulations to Scotland on their 61-0 victory over Russia. A clinical, well-constructed win against a team who were playing their fourth and final match of the Rugby World Cup.

The opening passage of the game lasted around an incredible 4 minutes and 45 seconds and it painted a clear picture of what the teams had planned to do. Russia opted to play more attacking rugby than they had in their other fixtures which was commendable but as a result left themselves exposed to the speed of thought and movement of the disciplined Scotland attacking game.

It had taken Japan, Samoa and Ireland longer than an hour each to cement the bonus point against the Russians in the other games in pool A. It took Scotland 44 minutes.

I thought Scotland were accurate and disciplined in almost all that they did in the crucial first quarter and that set the platform for the victory.

On Scotland’s kicking game:

The kicking game from Scotland against Samoa was excellent and it was excellent again against Russia. The balance between high kicks, long kicks and attacking kicks was almost perfect. The ability to apply pressure on a fatiguing opposition by making them turn and run back then try to execute an escape under pressure is vital and Scotland did this really well. A real team effort.

I have spoken about the importance of getting the right attacking balance between playing with the ball in hand and applying pressure through kicks. I think they got it right, admittedly against a tired Russian side. Scotland kicked a lot, 33 times in total but with ball in hand made over 850 metres, 41 defenders beaten and made 14 clean breaks. A clear sign of identifying and attacking space.

Counterattack was outstanding too, and it was great to see the platform being created for some of our open field runners to show off their talents. An effective counterattack relies both on a high skill level and, essentially, on a huge work rate from players off the ball, sprinting to get in to position.

The success of a counterattack is often down to the players who don’t touch the ball, a true measure of the selfless attitude needed in the game.

It’s also important to note that in the last 160 minutes of rugby Scotland have not conceded any points. Nine tries from six different players against Russia may be the headline, but the zero next to Russia (and Samoa) will be as pleasing, if not more so.

There will be greater challenges for Scotland’s defence, but it is still very difficult to nil an international team.

On Scotland’s upcoming test against the hosts:

I hope Sunday’s performance and result will determine what happens next at RWC 2019. There is obviously the complicated and unprecedented issue of Typhoon Hagibis to consider, but as a player you can only focus on preparation and performance and adapt to whatever is asked of you.

A four-day turnaround brings with it some exceptional physical challenges for those who are asked to play in both fixtures.

However, it is unlikely that a lot the players who will play on Sunday will have featured against Russia, a couple of exceptions aside perhaps. So, the main challenge in preparation may not be a physical one but more of a psychological one.

So much of the modern game revolves around the physical aspects of the players and their physical fitness. This will undoubtedly be a factor once again on Sunday but an arguably more important aspect for the team and the players will be their ability to embrace the psychological challenge. Dealing with and being inspired by the pressure that surrounds a game like this should really excite the squad.

The first thing I’d say is that the players will notice a huge difference compared to the other games they’ve played so far. The intensity that surrounds the home team in their home World Cup is incredible. There will be infinitely more media, the noise levels will be incredible and the focus on the game massive. This is the very last game of the pool stages on the 2019 RWC, everyone else will be finished and all eyes will be in this fixture. A recent statistic showed that 46.1% of the near 127 million population of Japan watched their game against Samoa. Brilliant!

In one of my earlier articles, I spoke about dealing with pressure, how everyone will deal with it in different ways. And how I felt that the pressure and weight of expectation had affected Japan in their opening game. Since then the Japanese performances have been excellent and they have been inspired by the incredible wave of public support they’ve received rather than been hindered by it. However, I think the pressure on Japan in Sunday’s game will be greater still. It’s worth noting that in Rugby World Cups Scotland have been in a similar position often before, it’s new ground for Japan.

Looking back at Scotland’s Rugby World Cup history:

Using experience gained from similar situations in the past is vital.

In the four Rugby World Cups that I was lucky enough to play in a similar, all or nothing, scenario unfolded. We have the ability to learn from all of these and more.

In 1999 the competition, the format was slightly different. The 20 teams were split in to five pools of four. Meaning the five group winners would qualify for the quarter finals and then the five runners-up and the best third place team would have to play a play-off game to reach the last eight. We were runners up to South Africa in our pool and had to face Samoa in the play-off. A 35 -20 victory was enough to qualify to face the All Blacks in the quarter final. Gregor Townsend dropped a goal that day and is the only member of the current squad involved.

In 2003, the all or nothing game was Scotland v Fiji in Sydney. The current format of four pools of five teams with the top two qualifying for the last eight was used for the first time. After wins against Japan and the USA and a loss to France we had to beat Fiji in the afternoon heat to progress, a game probably best known for the two wonder tries scored by the brilliant Fijian winger Rupeni Caucaunibuca.

Trailing 20 points to 15 with less than 3 minutes to go Tom Smith’s try levelled the scores and we had to slot the winning conversion to progress. We did.

Gregor Townsend played in that one too, current assistant coach Mike Blair was in the squad and team manager Gavin Scott was part of the management team focussing on analysis as well as Dr James Robson. Once again, experiences from that occasion may well come in useful this weekend.

2007 was a nail-biter too. Wins against Portugal and Romania and defeat to New Zealand meant the decider was to be our match versus Italy in Saint-Etienne. Italy had beaten us 37 points to 17 in the 6 Nations earlier that year and it was seen as their best opportunity to progress in a Rugby World Cup. They were seen as the favourites in many people’s eyes.

The build-up to this fixture was very tense and I can still remember the feeling in the team hotel in the lead up to the 9pm kick off. The later the kick-off the more time there is for the tension to build. It was quite unusual for us for the kick-off to be as late as 9pm but it is common in France.

A good way of managing that ‘wait’ was to split the match day in to two. You’d get up for breakfast as normal and then have a light session in the morning before lunch. Then as lazy as it sounds it became important to go back to bed and try to get some rest/sleep for a good couple of hours after which the ‘proper’ match day preparation would begin. This is what we did in France in 2007 and the nervous tension was still very intense. Who knows what it would have been like without our siesta?

Italy scored the only try of the game and took an early lead but once again it came down to the wire. We were 18-16 ahead with less than five minutes to go when David Bortolussi the Italian fullback narrowly missed a long-range penalty. We progressed to face Argentina.

John Barclay, Mike Blair and Sean Lamont were all involved in playing capacities in 2007 and once again Gavin Scott and Dr James Robson will have experiences to share.

In all three of those experiences Scotland managed to meet the physical, technical, tactical and psychological challenges to ensure victory and progress to the last eight. My final experience is the opposite. In 2011 we failed to reach the quarter finals of the Rugby World Cup for the first time.

The fourth game of our pool saw us face England in Auckland after victories over Romania and Georgia and a defeat to Argentina. We had to beat England by at least an eight-point margin. We moved nine points ahead early in the second half but ultimately lost out to a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal and a 76th minute try from Chris Ashton. The feeling of being involved in the first Scotland team not to make at least the quarter-final still hurts.

They say, at times, you can learn more from defeat or disappointment than you can from winning and if that’s the case the lessons learned from that night in October 2011 could be invaluable this weekend too. Those involved then; John Barclay, Mike Blair and Sean Lamont on the playing side, Gregor Townsend was assistant coach and once again Gavin Scott and Dr James as part of the management team.

On Rugby World Cup 2015:

I was long since retired in 2015 but the circumstances were once again very similar. Scotland faced Samoa at St James’ Park in Newcastle needing to win in order to qualify. They did, Greig Laidlaw’s 74th minute try, the deciding factor.

The game was probably too open for most people’s liking and there will definitely be elements from that game both physically and psychologically, good and bad, that will be used to deal with this Sunday’s fixture.

Crucially there were a greater number of today’s squad involved in that one and the memories and experiences should still be fresh and will still be applicable today. Fraser Brown, Willem Nel, Gordon Reid, Grant Gilchrist, Johnny Gray, Ryan Wilson, Greig Laidlaw, Henry Pyrgos, Finn Russell, Peter Horne, Sean Lamont, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg were all involved although Gilchrist left the squad due to an injury he had sustained in our second pool match against the USA. Gavin Scott and Dr James with very important roles once again.

In summary it took until the 78th min in 2003, the 76th minute in 2007, the 76th minute in 2011 and the 74th minute in 2015 to determine the result and the following week’s movements. Be prepared but don’t be surprised if goes to the wire on Sunday.

Japan haven’t amassed those experiences in a Rugby World Cup yet but have been very impressive so far. They narrowly missed out on qualification in 2015 (the only team in history to win three games and be eliminated after the pool stages) as underdogs. How will they react to going into this game in pole position?

For Scotland, relishing the opportunity you have and rising to it, staying calm and trusting all the work that has gone into the preparation is essential.

It should be a brilliant occasion, let’s hope we get it.

Chris Paterson is the only Scotsman to play in four Rugby World Cups and is also Scotland’s highest point scorer. Catch up on his previous article that looks at Scotland’s test against Samoa in detail.

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