Preview: Scotland v Tonga

Date published: November 21 2014

With the work of Vern Cotter starting to bear fruit, a rejuvenated Scottish outfit take on Pacific Island visitors Tonga on Saturday.

With the work of Vern Cotter starting to bear fruit, a rejuvenated Scottish outfit take on Pacific Island visitors Tonga on Saturday.

The timing in a way works well, given that at this stage two years ago Scotland were in their darkest place for some time.

Tonga shocked the crowd at Pittodrie with their victory in 2012 and as a result swung the axe that ended Andy Robinson’s time in charge.

With matters on the pitch and off it now in the best condition for some time, facing Tonga is a neat reminder for the SRU and Scotland’s players both of how far they’ve come, and of the bleak time they endured not so long ago.

Just five of the starting XV from the day remain for 2014’s clash, with Geoff Cross and Alasdair Strokosch also involved.

That’s some turnover in personnel, but Cotter hasn’t hung around with remodelling his squad.

Glasgow’s upsurgence is now benefiting the national side with half of Saturday’s XV coming from the Pro12 contenders.

Turning to youth appears to be working out when you consider that the likes of Al Kellock, Max Evans, Kelly Brown and John Barclay have been turned away in recent times.

After winning against Argentina and then giving the All Blacks a run for their money last week, Scotland truly are on the up.

Lots of talk has been centred around the All Blacks fielding a ‘second-string’ side, which does Scotland a disservice when you consider the likes of Ben Smith, Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa were all involved.

Solid defence, smart tactical kicking from Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell and a touch of opportunism from Tommy Seymour, who has two interception tries in two games this month, have all combined to make Scotland into a rising force.

With that productivity comes expectation. Scotland would be foolish to underestimate Tonga and yet the nation will want to see a performance of similar enterprise, with tries to come as a result.

Keeping a lid on those expectations while remaining true to their tactics and ability to attack will all be key factors if Scotland are to pull out a convincing result, one which would build further excitement ahead of next year’s Six Nations.

Cotter has been vocally excited about what is a tricky fixture.

“We have spoken about the fact this could be the danger game,” Cotter said. “It was easy for the guys to get themselves up for Argentina because it was the first game of the series, and then the All Blacks.

“But now we have shifted away from Murrayfield, and changed the environment. There is an opportunity to prepare well and execute well in a difficult situation, so mentally we have to be resilient. It will be fascinating to see how we deal with it.”

Tonga’s best weapon is their surprise factor, with Laidlaw admitting that the visitors were “hard to analyse”.

Mana Otai’s on side have been on fire in November, beating Georgia in Tbilisi and then dishing out a hammering to the USA last weekend in Gloucester.

Tonga certainly won’t lack for self-belief after scoring five tries at Kingsholm and with Kurt Morath’s boot proving to be reliable over the last two weeks – although he starts from the bench this time out.

Blessed with big ball carriers, exemplified by captain Nili Latu, Tonga will test Scotland’s defence in the narrow channels in a bid to make space out wide for their flyers.

Fetu’u Vainikolo hasn’t seen a lot of game time for Exeter Chiefs this season but is still capable of producing special tries such as this one.

Otai will have been concerned however over his side’s number of turnovers, 29 in the last two matches, with technical advisor Jake White also likely to have focused on Tonga’s lineout after losing four against Georgia and two last weekend.

Ones to Watch

For Scotland: Back in action at number eight with rising star Adam Ashe ruled out, Johnnie Beattie makes his first start this November after a couple of Tests earlier in the year against the USA and Canada. An athletic ball carrier, Beattie has been a hit in France and can keep the pressure on Ashe with a good performance in Kilmarnock.

For Tonga: Gloucester blindside Sione Kalamafoni has a great engine and persistently causes problems in for tacklers with his powerful running style. Contracted to Gloucester until 2016 and still only 26, Kalamafoni is one of Tonga’s best operators and will have his work cut out up against the Scottish back row.

Head-to-head: An early replacement for the injured Mark Bennett against New Zealand, Sean Lamont gets the nod at outside centre for Scotland again this week. Such a physical runner at 1.88m and 95kg, Lamont will no doubt make some headway and if Scotland can get behind the defensive line their backs will flourish.

Opposite him is Siale Piutau, the elder brother of All Blacks winger Charles, who is currently playing in Japan with Yamaha Jubilo. The 29-year-old unsurprisingly doesn’t lack for speed and spent two years with the Highlanders in Super Rugby between 2011-2012.

Previous Results:
2012: Tonga won 21-15 at Pittodrie
2001: Scotland won 43-20 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
1995: Scotland won 41-5 at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria (RWC)

Prediction: No repeat of the 2012 shock this time around, as a classy Scotland side look to build on two good performances earlier this month. Scotland by 15.

The teams:

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Ryan Grant, 19 Kieran Low, 20 Alasdair Strokosch, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Duncan Taylor

Tonga: 15 Vungakoto Lilo, 14 David Halaifonua, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Hemani Paea, 11 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 10 Latiume Fosita, 9 Sonatane Takulua, 8 Viliami Ma’afu, 7 Nili Latu (capt), 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Joe Tu’ineau, 4 Tukulua Lokotui, 3 Paea Fa’anunu, 2 Aleki Lutui, 1 Tevita Mailau.
Replacements: 16 Elvis Taione, 17 Sione Lea, 18 Sila Puafisi, 19 Lisiate Fa’aoso, 20 Hale T Pole, 21 Tomasi Palu, 22 Kurt Morath, 23 Sione Piukala.

Date: Saturday, November 22
Venue: Rugby Park, Kilmarnock
Kickoff: 14:30 local (GMT)
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Assistant Referees: Greg Garner (England), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Carlo Damasco (Italy)