Scotland kick-off June with a match against Samoa, as Lions absentees Kelly Brown and Greig Laidlaw look to make a statement.
Left out by Warren Gatland; Brown and Laidlaw were unlucky not to have made the trip Down Under.
Ryan Grant’s call-up to the Lions squad as injury cover for Gethin Jenkins means that his initial place is now taken by Al Dickinson, with Moray Low filling in on the bench.
Consequently, Scotland remain minus only three players for this series in South Africa, as Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Richie Gray play in Australia. That means their side has not been severely dented and includes the likes of Tim Visser, Sean Lamont, Johnnie Beattie, Alasdair Kellock, Euan Murray and Alasdair Strokosch.
There are, however, three new players in Scotland coach Scott Johnson’s starting XV for Saturday’s showdown in Durban as full-back Greig Tonks, centre Alex Dunbar and hooker Pat MacArthur earn their first caps. In addition there are a further three uncapped players on the bench – Stevie Lawrie, Peter Horne and Duncan Taylor – while two players in the starting side have a solitary cap each, Tom Heathcote and Grant Gilchrist.
Only eight Scotland players survive from the last time these two nations met, in Apia last June. That match saw Scotland win 17-16 with Joe Ansbro and Rob Harley scoring the tries while Laidlaw knocked over the goals against Tusi Pisi’s impressive full house of points.
Speaking of Samoa, they will no doubt be reeling after going down 74-14 to the Golden Lions last week, with the result, let alone the margin, being a shock. The islanders’ line-up was full of quality so one assumes whoever face the South Africans in the fast-approaching Super Rugby play-off game are in for a hard 80 minutes. It looks like being the Kings.
Whether or not Samoa’s focus was on the upcoming series instead of the match at hand is not an excuse for how they were dominated by an outfit that has been competing in the Vodacom Cup. Players like Paul Williams, Alesana Tuilagi and Ofisa Treviranus will want a retort from a squad that is boosted by the international debuts of Alapati Leiua and Jack Lam. Both players are from the Hurricanes and go straight into the line-up this weekend.
Key player Taiasina Tuifua comes in at eight while Jonny Leota, fly-half Pisi and Census Johnston go straight into the XV. Leicester loosehead prop Logovii Mulipola also starts.
On paper this is a strong XV that will give Scotland a tough day but the question is, will they turn up and not crumble as they did in Jo’burg? We expect a different Samoa in Durban.
Ones to watch:
For Scotland: Who to choose? The aforementioned trio of Greig Laidlaw, Kelly Brown and Ryan Grant will, of course, want a big showing but it is a full-back from Edinburgh who is worth keeping an eye on. Greig Tonks is a quality prospect and has always impressed since his days at Wasps. Good under the high ball while having decent pace and power – that gets him past the first defender more often than not – he is a high-class number fifteen.
For Samoa: The big news in the team announcement is the inclusions of flanker Jack Lam and wing Alapati Leiua. Lam, while not the biggest, offers a great deal from the openside and is a real coup moving forward to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Out of the two though, Leiua is the one who most whets the appetite and his line-busting ability is going to be interesting to watch in Durban. Also keep an eye on the consistent Taiasina Tuifua.
Head-to-head: We go for the battle at ten as Tom Heathcote will get some on-the-job training from Tusi Pisi. Pisi has been there, seen it, done it while Heathcote is only one cap into what he hopes will be a long tenure in the fly-half spot. He has shown he is more than worthy of competing against the best from his performances for Bath over the past two seasons but will Pisi get the edge? A lot rests on both players’ shoulders on Saturday.
2012: Scotland won 17-16 in Apia
2010: Scotland won 19-16 in Aberdeen
2005: Scotland won 18-11 at Murrayfield
2004: Scotland won 38-3 in Wellington
Prediction: A close affair in prospect but we feel Scotland will take this by about 8!
Scotland: 15 Greig Tonks, 14 Sean Lamont, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Tom Heathcote, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Kelly Brown, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Alastair Kellock, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Pat MacArthur, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements: 16 Stevie Lawrie, 17 Moray Low, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Duncan Taylor.
Samoa: 15 James Sooialo, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Paul Williams (c), 12 Jonny Leota, 11 Alesana Tuilagi, 10 Tusiata Pisi, 9 Jeremy Sua, 8 Taiasina Tuifua, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Ofisa Treviranus, 5 Daniel Leo, 4 Teofilo Paulo, 3 Census Johnston, 2 Wayne Ole Avei, 1 Logovii Mulipola.
Replacements: 16 Maatulimanu Leiataua, 17 Sakaria Taulafo, 18 James Johnston, 19 Faatiga Lemalu, 20 Junior Poluleuligaga, 21 Brando Vaaulu, 22 Seilala Mapusua, 23 Alafoti Faosiliva
Date: Saturday, June 8
Kick-off: 14:15 local
Venue: Kings Park
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Marius Jonker (South Africa), Sindile Mayende (South Africa)
Television match official: Johann Meuwesen (South Africa)
Timekeeper: Paul Ackermann (South Africa)
Assessor: Dennis Immelman