There is something special about a test at Murrayfield. The lights are dimmed as the teams come out and a lone bagpiper, strapped in place at the top of one of the stands, leads the crowd in Scotland’s rugby anthem. Their national anthem is, of course, God Save the King.
Flower of Scotland is an anthem most Kiwis will enjoy singing along too, as it tells the tale of the Scots, led by Robert the Bruce, victory over Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn. Who doesn’t enjoy a win against the English? Something to look forward to I hope next week!
That victory against England in 1314 was historic, but this is not the time for the All Blacks to make more history. Scotland have pushed the All Blacks several times over the years, with two draws and a five-point loss when they last met, in Edinburgh in 2017. It took a stunning cover tackle by Beauden Barrett to stop Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg from scoring what would have been the match winning try in the 76th minute that day, so the All Blacks will walk on Murrayfield without a loss to Scotland in 31 tests.
Having recovered from the series loss to Ireland to beat South Africa at Ellis Park, retain the Bledisloe Cup and win the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks have found good form again. Since losing to Argentina in Christchurch they’ve won their last 5 tests, and overall, 7 out of their 11 tests this year. A win in Edinburgh, and then again in London next week, will see the All Blacks end the year with a 69%-win rate. Not as good as most years, but still respectable.
But first Scotland.
They are a decent side, not great, but still capable of an upset. They beat Fiji 28-12 after losing by a point to Australia. In the Six Nations they beat England 20-17, then lost to Wales by the same score, had a win against Italy, but were then well beaten by France and Ireland. It would be a huge surprise if Scotland were to beat the All Blacks, even an All Blacks side with significant changes from the side that thrashed Wales, but this has been a year of upsets. Argentina proved that when they beat England last week and when they knocked over the All Blacks in Christchurch.
However, you can’t call Ireland beating the All Blacks an upset. Ireland is a very good team, but the series victory in New Zealand was historic. Scotland, like Wales a week earlier, seem to sniff an upset in the wind.
“There is an extra added spice this week because we have got the opportunity to do something that’s never been done before. That’s exciting for everyone,” Scotland lock Grant Gilchrist said.
“We know the amount of effort and the level of performance it will take, but what an opportunity it is to play them at home and try to make history. It’s something the team will relish this week. If we put everything into our training week, make a few fixes and put on our best performance, we believe we can win.”
They will play an All Blacks side with a raft of changes from the team that beat Wales, with Jordie Barrett disappointingly not expected to be retained at second five. I say disappointingly purely because he has gone so well there in his two starts - the win against Australia at Eden Park and Wales last week - and he needs more time there.
Barrett could be world class at second five. He is strong, his height allows him to stand in tackles and off load, he has plenty of pace and a good kicking game. What’s not to like?
Ideally Ian Foster would have seen the three British tests as a rehearsal for the World Cup, where winning big games in succession is the secret to winning the title, but he wants to develop his squad, so David Havili is tipped to partner Anton Lienert-Brown in the midfield, with Mark Telea a chance to debut on the wing. TJ Perenara should be in the halfback mix and Samisoni Taukei’aho must return at hooker.
Blindside remains an issue and it could be a huge opportunity for Akira Ioane to stake a claim there, yet again, though I suspect it won’t matter when Ethan Blackadder returns next year. Hopefully, Richie Mo'unga stays at first five as he, like Barrett, needs plenty of test time there but what does Foster do with Stephen Perofeta and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck? Perofeta may get a start, but RTS is more likely to be on the bench.
Foster will be wary of the Scots. He knows if he makes changes he still needs cohesion in his side and to field a team that can win.
In an historic year Foster doesn’t want to make history in Edinburgh.