Scott Hastings: Scotland can reach Rugby World Cup last 8
The former Lions centre won 64 caps for his country and featured in three World Cups during his career. He fully expects Scotland to make amends for the disappointment of four years ago and make it out of the pool, which also contains Japan, United States and South Africa, this time around.
“I expect them to do it and then it’s knockout rugby. If they don’t reach the quarters then they’ve underperformed,” said the 50-year-old at this week’s launch of the Three Sisters pub in Edinburgh as an official fans’ hub for the tournament, which starts in England a week tomorrow.
Hastings added: “If, as many expect, it does come down to that Samoa game to secure qualification then that could be one of the most intense games of rugby Scotland have ever played in their history.”
Hastings is looking forward to his fifth World Cup as part of the ITV commentary team and will follow Scotland throughout the tournament. He is particularly relishing the trip to Newcastle, where Scotland’s last two pool games take place.
As a young man, Hastings studied in the city, where he played for Northern FC, and his two children have followed in his footsteps to attend his alma mater, Northumbria University.
He said: “The atmosphere at St James’ Park will be incredible and a lot of the team have experience of beating South Africa [in 2013]. But, looking all the way back to 1995, the Springboks always come good at World Cups and that will be a real Test match. But this tournament will have shocks, more than previous ones, and Scotland have a definite chance to surprise South Africa.”
Hastings has been encouraged by what he has seen from Scotland in the build-up to the tournament.
“Four very good performances and two very good wins,” is his verdict on the warm-up games. “Don’t underestimate what a winning feeling can do for a team.
“I think they are simmering nicely and can go into the World Cup with confidence. I do think that Japan and USA will have the team under pressure at times but they should be using that experience they’ve gained under Vern Cotter and the confidence to see them through those first two games.
“It’s a similar dynamic to four years ago when they struggled in the first two games.”
He added: “Everyone can see that there has been improvement under Vern Cotter. It’s now up to the players, in a World Cup, to bring that intensity to their own environment, and execute under pressure.
“You saw in the Six Nations that when Scotland were put under pressure, they collapsed under it, because they didn’t have the confidence of a winning team. You could see by the end of that championship they were broken.
“But a new season brings optimism. The wins over Italy were good and even the defeats to Ireland and France showed that they’re not far off.”
Assessing his old position of centre, the former Watsonians man admitted the loss of Alex Dunbar is a real blow but believes Cotter still has some diamonds at his disposal. He said: “I’ve commentated on MarkBennett back when he was on the sevens circuit and I think he is a young man who plays some brilliant rugby, plays with his head. He has a real passion for putting on that national jersey.
“I like the fact that Matt Scott has pushed himself back into contention. He’s worked hard to get back from his injuries and, when he’s on top of his game, he can be a real attacking threat.
“What the combination is going to be I don’t know because Peter Horne has got great hands and, in Richie Vernon, well, he’s not the soft-hands option, but when he hits the right angles, he can be a thorn in the flesh of opposition midfields. He’s a big man who gets across the gainline and, if he attracts attention, it creates space outside to exploit. It’s all about getting the right blend at centre that can get the best out of the likes of Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour, who are proven finishers.
“Then, inside, everyone is looking at Finn Russell. He’s still a young guy under the microscope a bit but we have lacked that kind of player in that key position. Obviously, he is compared to Gregor Townsend but people of my era see a lot of John Rutherford in him – a guy who is able to make a break, control the game.
“He’s improving all the time and then Duncan Weir provides another solid option, a steadying hand as it were.”
Hastings only featured for a few minutes in the inaugural tournament in 1987, a hamstring injury against Romania ending his tournament, but was a mainstay of the team that reached the semi-finals in 1991 and the quarter-finals in South Africa four years later.
He said: “1991 was a great experience playing all our games at home. We won all our pool games, then had that fantastic atmosphere in the quarter-final against Western Samoa.
“The semi against England was close. People always remember my brother Gavin’s unfortunate miss, and it wasn’t to be. And there is also regret that we came so close to beating the All Blacks for the first time ever, losing the third-place play-off 13-6 in Cardiff.
“On the back of 1990 we were full of confidence, but unfortunately that chance went against England. There was a real feeling that if we could have won that day, we could have gone on and beaten Australia in the final.
“Scotland will have their chances this year. Momentum can shift very quickly in rugby, one moment of inspiration and magic could have that galvanising effect and propel the team on to something we maybe didn’t think was possible.”
l Caledonia Best is the Official Beer of Scottish Rugby. For more, follow on twitter @caledoniabest and on facebook