Rugby World Cup: Team selection key for Scotland - Mike Blair

By Mike BlairFormer Scotland scrum-half
Vern Cotter addresses the Scotland players in training
Head coach Vern Cotter addresses the Scotland players in training
Rugby World Cup
Hosts: England Dates: 18 September-31 October
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 live and sports extra, BBC local radio, plus live text commentary on every match on the BBC Sport website.
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The Scotland management team have a big job on their hands over the next three weeks.

Meticulous preparation will have been put into the last three months with the focus all on the performances during the group stages of this World Cup.

A lot of time will have been spent on fitness and skills during pre-season but arguably the key factors concerning Scotland's qualification for the knock-out stages will have been the result of off-field discussions regarding the strategy of managing players in the tournament.

In other words, which players will play in which games?

To rest or not to rest?

There are only three full days off between Scotland's opening two games against Japan and the USA, six days before they play South Africa and a further week until the Samoa match.

In the 2011 World Cup, Scotland played Romania and Georgia with three days' rest between matches and only five players started both games. I think this year will be different and Scotland will expect more players to back up and start two on the trot.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Scotland's Rugby World Cup fixtures
Wed, 23 Septv JapanKingsholm Stadium, Gloucester14:30 BST
Sun, 27 Septv United StatesElland Road, Leeds14:30 BST
Sat, 3 Octv South AfricaSt James' Park, Newcastle16:45 BST
Sat, 10 Octv SamoaSt James' Park, Newcastle14:30 BST

First, they can't afford to play weakened teams against Japan and the USA. These will be proper Test matches and it will need good performances to beat them.

Secondly, if the first two games are won then that would probably mean that Scotland could rest a few of their key players for the South Africa Test and come out all guns blazing against Samoa. With the competitiveness of Japan and the USA, who knows, Scotland might have already qualified by the time they face Samoa.

Finally, it means that there is cohesion and understanding within the match day squad.

The attacking and defensive structures won't differ massively for the opening fixtures and, with limited preparation time between them, it means only tweaks to the tactics rather than starting from zero with training runs, strategy and so on with a new group of players. They should hit the ground running and by the time fatigue sets in hopefully Scotland will be a few points up…

There will be some changes, though, with injuries definitely affecting selection, and I think where there is genuine competition for places we will see opportunities given.

Josh Strauss will soon become eligible to play for Scotland on the residency rule
Josh Strauss will soon become eligible to play for Scotland on the residency rule

I'd imagine Josh Strauss will gain his first start in one of the two openers but with his last few performances Dave Denton is certainly the man in possession of the jersey.

Also second row, inside centre and on the wings are areas where there are options and where the team wouldn't be weakened with whoever was selected. The spine of the team should remain, however.

Scotland's tactics

And what of the tactics? Let's look at the first game against Japan.

Teams tend to have very similar attacking structures these days. Short options carrying through the forwards and 'release' plays with backs attacking as a second wave.

Matt Scott prepares to pass to Dave Denton in the warm-up match against Ireland in Dublin
Matt Scott prepares to pass to Dave Denton in the warm-up match against Ireland in Dublin

Against Ireland, Scotland played wide and with the backs generally. Against Italy they initially started using the forwards to carry but then reverted to wider plays as the game wore on. These options will all be on against the Japanese; it's just the decision-making, the right option to suit the situation, and this is where Finn Russell has excelled.

Traditionally you would say that against the Japanese you should play a set-piece style; drive line-outs and dominate at scrum time. But Japan, in fact, have a very strong, low scrum and their line-out is run by Steve Borthwick, one of the game's greatest line-out exponents/geeks, so they will be extremely competitive here too.

The secret, I believe, is to control the tempo of the game. Japan will want to play fast but so do Scotland - the key is to play fast when you want to play fast but have the ability to take the sting out of the game by playing to the corners and forcing them into having to exit.

Or alternatively start playing keep-ball with a tighter, forward-based attack for periods, just to subdue them. In the contact, Michael Leitch has to be contained. He was one of the stars of World Cup 2011 and has improved with his club rugby experiences at Waikato Chiefs.

Not long to go now.

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