Scotland v Tonga
Scotland look to complete encouraging autumn
Will Macpherson
November 21, 2014
Tommy Seymour has been in fine try scoring form for Scotland © Getty Images
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Scotland fans are tough folk hardened by many a defeat on a cold winter day. But there's one such loss, almost two years ago, that still rankles. This Saturday they host the team that beat them that day at Pittodrie: Tonga. That result gave Scotland a winless November after a drubbing at the hands of New Zealand and being muscled off the park by South Africa. Unsurprisingly, Andy Robinson lost his job as a result.

Things feel markedly different now. Vern Cotter's project is bearing fruit: Argentina were flattered by their 41-31 defeat at Murrayfield and New Zealand were given a real scare. A crop of exciting young talent is emerging in crucial positions and they are learning to score tries. It says plenty about Cotter's overhaul that just one-third of the starting line-up from that dark day in Aberdeen will play on Kilmarnock's artificial surface this weekend.

The dropping of old hands like Kelly Brown and John Barclay turned heads but is paying dividends as Glasgow's exciting brand of rugby is being transferred to the international stage: 10 Warriors backs have been used by Cotter this autumn. There's depth and a sense of continuity in the backline for the time in an age - changes have been made this weekend through necessity and talent like Duncan Taylor and Tim Visser only get their chance this week, while the injured Matt Scott hasn't been missed.

Team News

  • Scotland: Vern Cotter has shuffled his hand due to injuries, making four changes to the side that lost to New Zealand. In are Geoff Cross and Johnnie Beattie for Euan Murray and Adam Ashe, who have neck and thigh injuries respectively in the pack. Sean Maitland and Mark Bennett have hamstring injuries (the latter more serious) and are replaced by Tim Visser and Sean Lamont, who wins his 91st cap. Duncan Taylor and Kieran Low make their first appearances of the autumn on the bench.
  • Tonga: Openside Nili Latu leads the Tongans in a strong back row containing Viliami Ma'afu and Gloucester's Sione Kalamafoni. Charles Piutau lines up for New Zealand in Cardiff but his brother Siale plays at outside centre for Tonga in Kilmarnock in a powerful backline.

Greig Laidlaw is the glue that holds the side together, Stuart Hogg an ever more lively presence from full-back and the Gray brothers an explosive and industrious engine room. There's cautious optimism in the highlands.

This, in many ways, is their most important fixture of the autumn. Now is not the time for backward steps in results, but especially not in performance. They need a win, but the points to match their ambition, too. The favourites tag rarely sits well on Scottish shoulders but there is expectation now. What's more, this game provides perfect preparation for World Cup clashes against Samoa, USA and Japan, taking place in a smaller stadium, testing their depth up against hungry opposition.

The result is no foregone conclusion, however. Tonga won't be short of belief - they've got that 2012 result to draw on - and will be as physical as ever. They're two from two in November, having seen off Georgia and putting five tries on USA in Gloucester last weekend. They'll carry big, run hard and tackle Scotland all the way back from Murrayfield. Scotland will have to play well if they're to get the result the nation expects.

In form

Scotland's back three are in fine form. Tommy Seymour has a nose for the tryline (he's two intercept tries from two this autumn), nobody quite knows Stuart Hogg is going to do next (in a good way) and they've drafted a fine replacement for Sean Maitland in Tim Visser, who has suspect defence but a happy knack for scoring (as 7 tries in 14 Tests shows). The service to them keeps on improving: Laidlaw is snappy from the base, Finn Russell has an eye for space and Alex Dunbar is extremely reliable. If Lamont can come in and keep the machine as well-oiled, there could be some points in store. They're up against Siale Piutau who, like his brother Charles, is absolutely rapid.

Out of form

Johnnie Beattie returns with a point to prove. He's lost his place in the Scotland side without having done a great deal wrong but is presented with an opportunity by Ashe's injury. He's without his fellow back-row Bs - Brown and Barclay - but expect a more mature Beattie to be a strong carrying presence and big in the tackle. Scotland's front row also has some work to do after a tough outing against the All Blacks. Geoff Cross is in for Euan Murray and while their opposition will undoubtedly be weaker, they'll be mighty powerful and no mugs - Paea Fa'anunu in particular is a tough operator.

Gloucester's Sione Kalamafoni fends off Wasps' James Cannon, Wasps v Gloucester, Aviva Premiership, Adams Park, High Wycombe, England, February 17, 2013
Gloucester's Sione Kalamafoni is a mighty presence with ball in hand for Tonga © Getty Images
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Key battle

The battle of the loose forwards will be key. Rob Harley and Blair Cowan have had strong autumns so far and held their own against a potent Kiwi breakdown combination in Richie McCaw and Sam Cane (not to mention Victor Vito and Liam Messam) and offered plenty in the loose, too. They're up against Tongan skip Latu and Gloucester's dynamic blindside Kalamafoni, who will carry well and compete manfully for the ball. The Tongans have achieved good results this autumn but must be better at the breakdown: so far they've conceded 29 turnovers in two games. They're unlikely to take home another famous win if they're that profligate again.

Stats

  • Fetu'u Vainikolo scored Tonga's first try v USA and made 95 metres across the match, while full-back Vunga Lilo also scored and made 11 metres
  • Jonny Gray made 16 tackles and 10 runs last week while also presiding over a flawless Scottish lineout that stole three Kiwi throws too.

Odds

Scotland are 12-1 on with Unibet, who offer Tonga at 5/1

Verdict

Scotland by 20

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