THE power of the pack is a central tenet in Scotland’s opening World Cup match against Romania in Invercargill tomorrow and no-one epitomises the Scottish strength more than Ross Ford.
The hooker will be asked by skipper Alastair Kellock to lead the Scotland team out on to the Rugby Park Stadium to mark his 50th Test cap, Scotland coach Andy Robinson having restored the first-choice Edinburgh front row of Allan “Chunk” Jacobsen, Ford and Geoff Cross after the trio were rested in the warm-up match against Italy last month.
Reflecting on the 49 Tests to date, Ford takes confidence from some of the great forward efforts that underpinned wins over England, Australia, South Africa and Argentina. He acknowledges that scrummage problems cost them momentum in the recent RBS Six Nations Championship, but believes that the strides made by the front row individually and as a whole have create a unit with the potential to at least hold their own in a World Cup pool dominated by renowned scrummaging packs.
It starts with the test provided by Romania this weekend, which includes London Irish prop Paulica Ion and veteran Perpignan hooker Marius Tincu, and moves on to a Georgian pack next week featuring a handful of forwards rated among the most powerful in the French Top 14.
“I’m delighted to be selected for the first game and it will be a big forward battle with Romania, but we’re ready for that and what is coming,” says Ford.
“Personally, I’m delighted to reach 50 caps. I didn’t realise only 30 people had reached it, and to do it in a World Cup just makes it extra special. I’ll think more about the achievements when I finish my career, probably, but there have been some great games that stand out in the memory.
“My only memory of my first cap is of coming off the bench for Gordy Bulloch against Australia in 2004 and being emptied by the Wallaby lock Nathan Sharpe – ‘there’s your introduction to international rugby, mate’ – but I did manage to get the ball back.
“But the first win away to Argentina in 2009, in the second Test in Buenos Aires where I scored a try, is an obvious one, and the wins against Australia and South Africa were great games to be part of. The recent victory over Ireland in Croke Park was also a fantastic one, so there have been some cracking times with Scotland.
“I’ve been very fortunate with injuries and steered clear of really serious ones, which is a big part of playing consistently at this level. But that experience, the big wins we’ve had, all provides confidence, especially going into a tournament like this.”
Scotland have made eight changes to the side that took on Italy last month, four in the backs and four up front. Sean Lamont steps in to provide some ballast at inside centre while Graeme Morrison rests a leg knock, Joe Ansbro is back at outside centre, Ruaridh Jackson returns at stand-off and Chris Paterson at full-back.
The front row is the big change in the pack, with Richie Gray also back for Nathan Hines in the second row. The lead provided by the front row and Ford, in particular, Robinson believes will be significant, with Romania and Georgia seeing the scrum as their best route to unsettling each of their opponents in Pool B and creating hope of a World Cup upset. Any sense of complacency will be seized upon, but Ford believes there is no danger of that occurring.
“I’ve never felt that I’ve rested on my laurels as a player, or taken anything for granted, and that stands you in good stead,” he says. “Personally, I always feel I have to work harder to get better, to keep my place. Every year when the new season is coming up, I get worried about who is coming in trying to take my place, whether it’s with Edinburgh or Scotland.
“I always worry about that, guys pushing through and new players coming. That makes me strive to get better, work harder and lift more in the gym than the season before, do more on the pitch than in previous games, things that make you feel more confident. And there is the same ethos across the squad right now.
“I’m lifting pretty close to my heaviest weights ever now [140kg on the bench press and bent-over roll, and 200kg on squats], but Geoff [Cross] is easily the strongest in the squad now. He’s always been strong, but he’s put a lot of hard work in over the past year. It’s that work-rate that pushes everyone on and makes sure no-one takes anything for granted.”
That brings us back to the confidence levels going into this World Cup. There is little doubt that the Scotland squad is among the strongest ever to take part in the tournament, in terms of strength and experience in all positions, but the question now is will that transfer to results?
Again, it starts with how well the forwards cope in the set-piece and the team’s ability to win enough good and quick ball to impose themselves.
Ford added: “The big thing about the scrum is that it’s not just about one player; it’s all eight, but especially the front row working as a unit. I have full faith in Chunk and Geoff, and we have full confidence in each other in taking on anybody that is put in front of us. Our pack has done jobs on some of the best packs in world rugby in the past and so I have total belief in us being able to take on any side in this World Cup.
“If we can put on an entertaining show and win tomorrow, great, but if we have to win ugly I’m quite prepared for that because the most important thing is winning the game. Romania and Georgia will be two very tough teams and we have to be very switched on, but the focus is simply on beating Romania.
“I was only in my teens in the last World Cup in cap terms, so it’s gone quickly since then, but I savour every single one and every cap I get now I want to mean something, preferably a win. It’s a big ask but it starts with the 50th against Romania, and making sure this adventure gets off on the right foot.”