Scotland build depth and eye revenge in Australia

Scotland arrive in Australia buoyed by a good win over Italy in Singapore
Scotland arrive in Australia buoyed by a good win over Italy in Singapore

Five years - and a whole lot of pain - have passed since Scotland last beat the Wallabies, a 9-6 gruntathon in the monsoon of Newcastle in New South Wales.

John Barclay is one of the few men who played then and who's still playing now. Whenever the game is mentioned and he's asked if it feels like half a decade ago, he smiles and says, no, it doesn't, it feels a whole lot longer ago than that.

It does. Barclay's partners in the back-row that day were Alasdair Strokosch and Ross Rennie. Nick de Luca was in the midfield, Joe Ansbro on the wing. Tom Brown won his one and only cap in that match. Tom Ryder was the back-up lock on the bench.

That Scotland side didn't possess much in the way of an attack compared to this one. Scotland didn't score a try in Newcastle and yet they won.

In their last two meetings with the Australians, the Scots have scored six tries and lost them both.

As they left Singapore after a pleasing performance in the win over the Italians, Gregor Townsend's team arrived in Sydney for a proper Test against a side that has caused them no end of strife in recent times.

They'll have travelled in good heart. Some of the stuff that Scotland produced against Italy was really good, but it has to be viewed in the context of a woeful opponent. It was a solid win laced with some excellence in difficult conditions.

It got things off to a nice beginning under Townsend, but Italy are so lamentable these days that nobody in the Scotland camp will be fooling themselves about the significance of the win.

There were obvious successes. Some players - Damien Hoyland and Ben Toolis - that have previously been bit-part, or no-part, performers stepped up impressively. An old soldier, WP Nel, returned. A class act, Duncan Taylor, reappeared.

Captain John Barclay played in Scotland's win over Australia in June 2015
John Barclay, captain on this tour, played in Scotland's win over Australia in June 2015

What will have gladdened Townsend's heart wasn't just the way the five tries were constructed, it was the way his player options now look to be increasing.

Australia will be an infinitely bigger test of that theory in Sydney next weekend, but if Townsend is going to take this thing where he wants to take it then building depth is paramount.

Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Greig Laidlaw, Huw Jones, Sean Maitland, Mark Bennett, Alasdair Dickinson, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson and John Hardie were absent against Italy. Most of them won't be involved in Sydney either.

That's another dimension to what should be an intriguing Test match. Can Scotland beat an eminently beatable Wallabies side while missing so many go-to men?

'There's little between the sides'

What do we know of Australia? We know that they are experimenting with selection right now, we know that they played Fiji on Saturday and put them away 37-14 after racing into an 18-0 half-time lead. We know that the wondrous attacker, Israel Folau, who hadn't scored a try for his country in a year, scored two against the Pacific Islanders.

We know that, despite the dire straits of some of their clubs in Super Rugby, they can still pick a squad of 23 that is formidable.

They are also flawed, however. They're not to be feared. They were good value for their win against Fiji, but there are so many things that will catch Townsend's eye when he reviews that game.

Israel Folau in full flow against Fiji
Folau touched down twice as the Wallabies eased to victory over Fiji

Australia missed 25 tackles. They got turned over 20 times. They only had 43% possession and 37% territory. That was more than enough to carve up Fiji, but if those numbers are repeated against Scotland then the visitors will have a major chance of securing a major victory.

Scotland can win on Saturday. They haven't in the recent past, but they can.

Australia have won the last two meetings by one point each time and won the game before that by six points. There's little between these sides.

In the November game, Scotland led until the 74th minute despite being under a barrage for much of a second half where 62% of the Test took place in the Scottish half. The home side had to make 156 tackles. The Gray brothers - both magnificent on the day - made 47 tackles between them.

Scotland scored more tries than the Wallabies, made more metres with the ball, made more clean breaks and beat more defenders but still succumbed at the end in a grim reprise of the World Cup quarter-final the previous year

Scotland's last-gasp loss to Australia was a painful exit from the 2015 World Cup
Scotland suffered an agonising last-gasp defeat by Australia at the 2015 World Cup

That, as if anybody is ever likely to forget, was the most devastating kick in the gut, arguably the biggest howitzer visited on a Scottish rugby team in the history of the game.

It was 35-34 at Twickenham and 23-22 at Murrayfield. If recent matches are any kind of indicator then Saturday is going to be tight and thrilling.

Townsend will name his team on Thursday and, if there is one thing we know about the new Scotland coach from his Glasgow days, it is that he is not afraid to try different things.

He may not do it against Australia, but Townsend sounds keen to have a look at Finn Russell - excellent at 10 against Italy - at full-back. Taylor, who played 15 at the weekend, could pop up in the midfield or on the wing in the coming weeks. Peter Horne could start at stand-off.

With Townsend, you learn to expect a little of the unexpected.

More predictable will be the return of Jonny Gray in the second row and of Hamish Watson at seven. Both were rested with the Wallabies in mind. Watson announced himself as a player of Test match quality in that game against Australia in the autumn.

Having made the seven-hour flight from Singapore, they are now ensconced in the beachside suburb of Coogee, eight kilometres north of downtown Sydney.

There's talk of sharks in the water of Coogee Bay, but it's Wallabies that Scotland will be looking to cage this week.