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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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Scotland v Australia: The Murrayfield duel

By Jamie Lyall
The XV – SCONZ-min

Gaze up at the mountain peak far ahead, and you may trip on the rock in front of your feet.

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Elite rugby is besieged by an almost fetish-like tendency to fixate on the next World Cup. The great carnival in France is but two years away now, and coaches are right to build their depth for the grandest stage of all.

But look too far ahead, and you can lose your footing. Focus too intensely on France and its finery, and significant Test matches may be lost. Your best team in 2023 may not be your best team this weekend.

The paying public will not accept the slaying of short-term wins on the altar of possible riches in two years’ time. So many factors – form, injuries, weather, trends in the game – affect the World Cup and make detailed planning such a challenge.

Scotland, and Gregor Townsend, are doing a pretty good job of striking the balance between immediate results and future success. Few coaches are as meticulous, and Townsend’s neurological cogs will have long been whirring towards a rousing 2023.

Robbed of the opportunity to blood new players and test new combinations on the Covid-eviscerated summer programme, the Autumn Nations Series takes on greater significance.

So what can be learned from an out-of-window Test with Tonga, savagely depleted and desperately undercooked?

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Each of the eight debutants took their opportunities in style. Rufus McLean was scintillating, a devilish sprite on the left wing who menaced and bamboozled a disparate Tongan defence. Townsend loves his energy, effervescence and sheer industry on both sides of the ball. But he does not make the 23 to take on Australia this weekend.

Kyle Steyn, scorer of four excellent tries, can only make the bench. Blair Kinghorn, who went well at fly-half, is squeezed out altogether despite being able to fill at least three backline positions. So is Sione Tuipulotu, one of the form players of the URC and another impressive new cap.

At the other end of the experience spectrum, Stuart McInally is out, with 21-year-old Ewan Ashman, the barnstorming Sale hooker, given his chance from the bench. Townsend has extremely high hopes for the mobile specimen and for Josh Bayliss, the rapid Bath back-row who has been forced to wait eight months for a cap by injury and the ongoing blight of coronavirus.

Kyle Steyn ran in four tries for Scotland against Tonga last weekend (Photo by Getty Images)
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It is a sign of Scotland’s deepening player well that so many can be cut and competition is so ferociously intense. Put together a XV of Scots unavailable or unselected for the Tonga thrashing, and you can assemble a serious unit.

Your front-row would probably comprise Rory Sutherland, Fraser Brown and Simon Berghan.

Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings, both recovering from injury, would be your locks, with Magnus Bradbury, Rory Darge and Blade Thomson a potential back-row combination.

Stick George Horne at nine and Finn Russell at 10; Cam Redpath and Chris Harris in the centres. A back-three of Duhan van der Merwe, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland packs a mighty punch.

Six Lions have been included here, and we haven’t mentioned Robin Hislop, WP Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Sam Skinner, Richie Gray, Adam Hastings, Matt Scott, or several other contenders. It is an encouraging state of affairs.

And so to the Wallabies, revived spectacularly by Dave Rennie, the former Glasgow supremo, and spearheaded by redoubtable Michael Hooper. The flanker has amassed an eye-watering 115 caps at age 30. He has missed but a handful of Tests since his debut in 2012 and led Australia through some of its most barren, apathy-ridden doldrums of the professional era. In the age of McCaw, Pocock and Kolisi, Hooper’s relentless brilliance is underappreciated.

Seeing the Wallabies skipper and Hamish Watson go at it on Sunday will be like watching two rabid mongooses fight. To witness Pierre Schoeman versus Allan Alaalatoa up front will be to have ringside seats for King Kong’s bout with Godzilla.

Townsend can select his first-choice backline, with Russell, Harris, Van der Merwe and captain Hogg all reinstated. That is a brilliant array of attacking ammunition and, particularly where Harris is concerned, defensive nous.

And of course, Townsend and Rennie, two men steeped in rugby with two hugely respected brains, try to outwit one another in the Scottish capital. Both are passionate exponents of a high-tempo, off-loading game. Each has been forced to infuse their team’s rugby with a little more pragmatism. Both coached Glasgow Warriors, Rennie succeeding Townsend two years after his Pro12 triumph.

Wallabies

Dave Rennie has guided Australia to an impressive 2021 so far (Photo by Getty Images) and in that regard, the Wallabies supremo brings spades of inside knowledge with him. Three seasons at the Warriors helm will do that. Matt Taylor, his defence specialist, was at Townsend’s right hand for seven years. Few were closer to the Scotland coach during his title-winning stint and ascent to the national team. Petrus du Plessis played and coached under Rennie at Scotstoun, and has helped mould the Wallabies scrum into a more potent weapon. Four of the Scottish front-rows are Warriors men, and Du Plessis will have worked with all of them.

Under Rennie, Australia have become a force again. Rugby has long failed to capture the imagination of a public who have elite sport lavished upon them at every turn. The malaise and disinterest miring the Australian game is well documented, but Rennie is giving the people a team to be proud of.

His time at Glasgow brought highs – scintillating rugby, a Pro14 final, European triumphs over Exeter, Sale and Lyon – and lows – losing that Celtic Park final to Leinster, failing to win silverware or break new ground in Europe. His teams were dogged by the perception, not always fair, they were too physically soft and too easily bullied. Stuart Hogg was, at various points, unhappy at how open Warriors made themselves. Those who struggled to break into the side have been deeply critical of Rennie’s man-management, but plenty others have praised the culture he built and the influence he had on their development.

Australia and Rennie rumble north to Murrayfield with five wins on the bounce, two of which came over the world champion Springboks. Rennie has been shorn of Samu Kerevi, Sean McMahon and Quade Cooper, though the reasons for which remain murky. Players continue to be hauled in too many directions by the game’s competing interests. Still, it is a formidable line-up. Still, Rennie can bring Taniel Tupo and Will Skelton, two of world rugby’s most imposing physical talents, off the bench. And still, the Wallabies are steeled by the rigors of regular internationals the Scots have not yet tasted.

So, the mountain with the Webb Ellis Cup at its summit can wait. In the here and now, huge Tests must be conquered.

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