AFTER being dominated by the world's top two sides in their first two matches of the EMC autumn Test campaign, Scotland have their chance to impose themselves in Aberdeen today and they have to take it.
Andy Robinson hinted careers are on the line when citing the match against Tonga at Pittodrie as a very important one for certain players, but it is a vital match for the head coach himself, who badly needs a turning point.
The summer tour which produced three wins against a sub-strength Australia, something of a rabble in Fiji and a last-gasp victory in Samoa, provided some respite, but the overall trend has been very much downward since Scotland went into their key World Cup matches little more than a year ago on the brink of setting new records for successive Test wins.
The Six Nations whitewash proved that what had ended up being a worst ever World Cup was no freak outcome and while there was some kudos to be taken from scoring three tries against the All Blacks two weeks ago while suffering the inevitable hiding, the failure to take advantage of facing what was little more than a Springbok development XV last week was another major setback.
The freshening up of the team was very necessary, then, with a number of players who were largely selected for their weight, but have not been pulling it, paying the price for lacklustre performances. In particular, the recall of Scotland's World Cup captain, Al Kellock, ought to freshen up the thought processes and bring authoritative support to Kelly Brown in these early days of his captaincy.
However, in spite of Kellock's recall and the introduction of Henry Pyrgos to end the nine-year, three-man hegemony at scrum-half of Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson, it is interesting that Kyle Traynor's late inclusion means there are more Exiles than home-based players in the starting XV for the first time in what feels like a very long time.
Both the pack and the back division have very different looks to them. Ross Ford's absence represents another significant moment in the squad's development, the British & Irish Lions hooker having been an automatic choice for some five years, but now left out in favour of the pacier Scott Lawson.
Similarly, Max Evans' reintroduction in the midfield has the potential to liven things up considerably, but it will all only work – against a team that will itself be keen for the game to become fast and loose – if Scotland get their discipline right and seek to play in the right areas.
That in turn places the work of the new defence coach, Matt Taylor, firmly in the spotlight, not least because Robinson said earlier this week that the team's mistakes in the tackle areas, which resulted in them conceding half-a-dozen early penalties, was what allowed the Springboks to take a stranglehold on last week's match.
It has been an odd start to his time back in Scotland for the former Aberdeen Grammar School FP player, who has returned to the city where he earned the right to become a professional player with the Border Reivers and to win Scotland A caps a decade or so ago.
Having spent the first few months of the season drilling Glasgow Warriors players into his way of thinking, Taylor largely had to do the same thing again, only with less time, with a Scotland squad that largely comprises Edinburgh players and Exiles.
"I think the guys have improved in every session," Taylor said yesterday. "Going into this week, I could see improvement in the group and in individuals. During the week you have to work hard on individual skills as well as the systems and we have done that really well; we have definitely made improvements from New Zealand to South Africa and I hope they will be even better this week.
"We have worked really hard on our low tackling. Like any skill, the more you do the skill, better you get at it. In the time I have been here we have worked hard on that and the guys are improving. I will be giving a lot of the group areas to work on when they go away so that they will be really good by the time they come back for the Six Nations."
Test rugby is a harsh environment in which to go through such learning processes, though, and in their different ways New Zealand and South Africa exploited Scottish deficiencies.
Tonga also have the capacity to cause mayhem and examine any defensive frailty, but they cannot be expected to be as clinical in doing so, largely because they have so much less time to hone their preparations. Naturally, all concerned will look cautiously towards their defeat of a France team that was on its way to the final at last year's World Cup, but Tonga's narrow loss at the hands of Italy this autumn offers a more accurate indication of what should be expected of them.
Admittedly, Scotland also suffered a narrow defeat in Rome this year but that anaemic performance was the nadir of the Robinson era, to date at least. Particularly with the changes that have been designed to make them look more sprightly, Scotland simply cannot get away with ending the Test year with anything other than a victory, and a good one at that. Anything less than a 15-point win will not be good enough and they know it.