Wallabies on run from critics as Lam gives Scots grounds for optimism

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The Independent Online

Australia may have spent Melbourne Cup day holed up in their antiseptic little hideaway on the Queensland coast - at its very wildest, Coff's Harbour resembles Torquay without the cutting edge - but they might as well be in the middle of town, facing their public and absorbing the flak from a small battalion of former Wallabies internationals who see signs of the World Cup slipping away.

When insults of this magnitude are flying around, there is no refuge anywhere on the continent. The knives are out, from Alice Springs to Wagga Wagga and back again.

You name them, the pundits are on the Wallaby case: Bob Dwyer, David Campese, Nick Farr-Jones. George Gregan should be sacked as captain, Matthew Burke should be dumped, Joe Roff should be given the bum's rush, Wendell Sailor should be dropped, preferably from a great height. Last weekend's one-point win over Ireland is being treated as a national catastrophe, even though Farr-Jones himself led the 1991 vintage to a similarly narrow victory against the same opposition and went on to lift the trophy.

It does not make a fat lot of sense, frankly. Gregan, notoriously prickly and constructed from a more complex set of materials than the average Aussie sporting superhero, began this tournament as one of its half-dozen most significant figures, and remains a player of considerable substance and influence. The same goes for Roff, one of the most intelligent wings in the game. A single close call against a highly capable Irish team is not remotely sufficient to stand rugby logic on its head.

All the same, the Scots are enjoying the sight of a host nation on the run. Their quarter-final against Australia on Saturday is not expected to produce an upset - if the Wallabies have lost some of their lustre, Ian McGeechan's team very nearly lost the plot against both Japan and Fiji - but hope springs eternal, especially when a born rugby evangelist like Pat Lam injects some Samoan-style optimism into the doggedly realistic Scottish mindset. Lam is not saying it will happen, simply that it might.

One of two coaches assisting McGeechan here, Lam played for Samoa when they beat Wales in 1991, ran the Springboks close in '95, and double-whammied the Welsh in '99. He knows pretty much everything there is to know about how the southern hemisphere game is played and, therefore, how it might be undermined. He recognises the problems surrounding the Scottish team, not least the absence of a specialist open-side flanker capable of mixing it with the likes of George Smith and Phil Waugh, but he does not consider them insoluble.

Lam is not even concerned about reports of late-night drinking among the fringe players. "It's a matter of personal responsiblity, isn't it?" he said yesterday. "World Cups produce unusual situations, especially this one, which is the longest tournament we have seen. There are no midweek games, so every time the team prepares for a match, eight people are out of the loop. I have nothing against players who find themselves in those circumstances getting out for a night and having a good time. I certainly wouldn't support a blanket ban on people enjoying a beer. As long as they look after themselves and are the best they can be when called upon to play, I don't have a problem."

While Lam's Samoans struck their great blows for the underdog by playing fast, sevens-style rugby in matches that developed into unstructured, unrestricted celebrations of the running game, Scotland's approach will necessarily be different this weekend.

"Scotland are not Samoa," he agreed. "They have different strengths, a different style. Do I believe a major southern hemisphere team like the Wallabies can be beaten by a team playing a containing game? Yes, definitely. It goes without saying that we need to take a major step up, but the spirit is strong.

"There has always been a perception in these parts that the northern game is weak, but I have been involved in British rugby for a long time now and I've seen the improvement year on year. The Wallabies will make one or two changes, for sure, and they'll be better than they were against Ireland. But Scotland can improve, too. The question is: by how much?"