Planet Rugby

Preview: USA v Scotland

06th June 2014 06:04

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John Beattie Scotland v Samoa 2013

Key man: Johnnie Beattie

Scotland will have to hit the ground running in Houston if they are to avoid an embarrassing slip-up in Vern Cotter's first game in charge.

If recent player testimonies are to be believed, Vern Cotter is already making his mark on his newest set of charges.

Most Scottish fans could be forgiven for failing to express much sympathy as one-by-one; Johnnie Beattie, Ruaridh Jackson and Tim Visser have come forth with tales of ultra-intense sessions in the Houston heat.

The locals even more so for checking news channels with alarm for an impending terrorist strike as the latest member of the backroom staff, a camera drone, hovered overhead.

Cotter seems to like his training short and sharp, and that's probably just as well: his final year at Clermont ensured he faces a whirlwind 15 months ahead of the World Cup; precious little time to evaluate what lies at his disposal.

He could scarcely give off a different aura to his predecessor, Scott Johnson, however: rather than appeasing the media hordes by weaving metaphorical magic and ribbing reporters for their press box attire, the Kiwi is quiet; focused and steely.

For all that Johnson's tinkering - with Cotter's own input - proved hard to fathom, and the results harder still to stomach, things do look rosier for the Scots now than for several years.

Glasgow Warriors' domestic surge has been capped by the emergence and consistency of a number of young talents: Finn Russell, Gordon Reid and Mark Bennett are just three to have made rapid progress under Gregor Townsend's tutelage.

Cotter's most important task on the field is identifying the man who will sit atop his fly-half pecking order heading into the global tournament, and the tour - or tours, for there are two - will offer him an important tool in doing so.

Quite rightly, he has opted for Russell, the form man, to make his debut in Houston. With the nation such a barren pivot boneyard throughout the past decade, much rests on the hitherto sturdy shoulders of Scotland's great white hope.

But a close second, perhaps marked with an asterisk or two on Cotter's to-do list must be plumping for a regular face to fill the number seven jersey (no, not Kelly Brown). London Irish's highly-rated Kiwi Blair Cowan wins his first cap on Saturday and a chance to show Scots without a BT Sport subscription just what he can do in the absence of Ross Rennie and John Barclay.

Elsewhere, Reid is another deserving debutant at loosehead, with prodigy Alex Allan and slick Edinburgh scrum-half Grayson Hart also poised to make their respective bows from the bench.

The rest of the squad has a familiar feel to it, though the midfield pairing of Sean Lamont and Duncan Taylor is curious, and one unlikely to win many plaudits for distribution.

That said, their physicality and strong-running style will target the Eagles line, and it is through carries and line breaks rather than eye-pleasing passes that they will create opportunities for Tim Visser, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland.

Scotland players have done their fair share of media since heading Stateside, but as Saturday's opener at the BBVA Compass Stadium looms, one quote from Beattie stood out:

"The rankings are there for a reason but these teams don't get their first-string players for a lot of international matches. If they did have them, they would be winning," the number eight told the BBC.

"This is a shot for us to play the first-string side; and it is not a USA ranked 18 that we are facing. It is different, a lot tougher than the gap the rankings points would suggest."

Scotland are eight places and eight points better off on the IRB World Rankings than their hosts, but Beattie's words strike a chord.

Not only is USA rugby on the rise, but their top-class players are now being snapped up by clubs in Europe, a sure-fire sign of national improvement.

There's the hulking Samu Manoa, who is rested after adding his might to Northampton Saints' campaign for Premiership glory, Blaine Scully and Chris Wyles who have turned heads out wide at Leicester Tigers and Saracens respectively, while Scott LaValla played a leading role in Paris for Stade Franšais.

Midfielder Folau Niua will be best known to the Scots having signed for the Warriors mid-season, though he has made only one appearance for his new team.

When talented home-based players like Mike Petri and globetrotting skipper Todd Clever are factored in, Mike Tolkin suddenly has a much stronger roster to choose from.

All these overseas internationals and more were missing when the Eagles pushed New Zealand Maori so close in Philadelphia back in November, a late Luke Katene try for the tourists eventually consigning the hosts to a 29-19 defeat after a workmanlike performance that bristled with all-action American spirit.

Tolkin opts to pit his own fly-half prodigy - the younger Suniula sibling, Shalom - against Cotter's, while ex-NFL convert Hayden Smith starts in the second-row as part of a hugely powerful eight; Clever, LaValla and the brilliant Cam Dolan pack down behind him.

It won't be lost on the Eages that, with Scotland low on confidence after a dismal 2013/14, a clash with Cotter's men on home turf represents the perfect opportunity to lay down a marker ahead of the pair's meeting in Pool B next year.

Indeed, with what started as cautions transatlantic whispers of confidence now growing in volume and brashness, the Scots will have to stay sharp to ensure the Kiwi's first game in charge does not end in embarrassment.

Ones to watch:

For USA: Cotter has picked a hefty pack in the hope of stifling the USA's power up front. With the likes of Beattie, Richie Gray and Al Strokosch pounding the Eagles' defensive line, the performance of Cam Dolan will be crucial. Sublime against the Maori, he needs to defend and carry with the same relentless vigour if the Americans are to catch scent of victory.

For Scotland: All eyes are on Finn Russell's first cap. The youngster has got the lot: slick hands, keen vision, a booming right boot, and most importantly, the temperament to perform his skills well under pressure.

Head-to-head: The match-up between the two rookie pivots will be intriguing and important - be sure that Lamont, Strokosch and co will saunter down Shalom's channel more than once in the early exchanges. But it's the battle between Dolan and Beattie at the base of the scrum that is most enticing.

Though a formidable carrier, the former's greatest asset lies without possession, while the latter excels in the open expanses with the ball grasped in one hand, scuttling opponents as he goes. It's a mouth-watering duel.

Prediction: The Eagles are riding rugby's updraft, but they haven't quite yet scaled the heights required to topple this Tier One side. Scotland by 12.

The teams:

USA: 15 Chris Wyles, 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Seamus Kelly, 12 Andrew Suniula, 11 Luke Hume, 10 Shalom Suniula, 9 Mike Petri, 8 Cam Dolan, 7 Scott LaValla, 6 Todd Clever (c), 5 Hayden Smith, 4 Louis Stanfill, 3 Eric Fry, 2 Phil Thiel, 1 Oliver Kilifi
Replacements: 16 Tom Coolican, 17 Nick Wallace, 18 Titi Lamositele, 19 Tai Tuisamoa, 20 Danny Barrett, 21 Folau Niua, 22 Chad London, 23 Tim Maupin

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Duncan Taylor, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Al Strokosch, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Gordon Reid
Replacements: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Alex Allan, 18 Moray Low, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Kieran Low, 21 Grayson Hart, 22 Ruaridh Jackson, 23 Max Evans

Date: Saturday 7th June
Venue: BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston
Kick-off: 1930 local, Sun 0130 BST
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (Fra)
Assistant referees: Francesco Pastrana (Arg), Chris Assmus (Can)
TMO: Alan Hosie (Sco)

By Jamie Lyall

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