This Sunday’s match against Tonga is looming fast and for Scotland and head coach Gregor Townsend the truth is obvious – this is the most important match of Townsend’s career to date and Scotland must win it.

No if, buts, or maybes, Scotland simply have to beat Tonga or the whole Townsend edifice will come crumbling down, because automatic qualification for the 2027 World Cup in Australia depends on Scotland finishing in the top three of Pool B in France. 

Beat Tonga and then Romania and that qualification will have been achieved. Beat Tonga and then Romania with four-try bonus points and then depending on the score between Ireland and South Africa on Saturday, Scotland will face Ireland on October 7 in what might yet be a winner-take-all match for qualification for the knockout stages, especially if the defending world champions can beat Ireland. 

That is all we can hope for, the chance to face Ireland with qualification for the quarter finals at stake, but that just won’t happen if we lose to Tonga or even draw with them. Yes, I know there are other computations that could assist the Scottish cause, and Fiji showed against Australia what a tier 2 team can achieve, but realistically I cannot see South Africa failing to defeat Tonga by a cricket score, and Ireland should beat us on all known form, so we have to secure the best prize we can and that’s third place in Pool B which means beating Tonga and scoring four tries to secure a bonus point, then doing the same to Romania a week on Saturday.

The consequences for Townsend of defeat by Tonga would be catastrophic. As he is a man of honour I would expect Scottish failure to at least achieve third place to be a resignation matter for him, and we would then have to go through the humiliating process of regional qualification prior to 2027.

We will also plummet down the world rankings and we know how important they are in determining seedings for the World Cup – we may be in fifth place in the rankings just now but we are only just ahead of England and they will leapfrog us if we cannot beat Tonga.   

Most armchair experts will have seen Ireland’s thorough demolition of Tonga at the weekend and concluded that Scotland will win by the length of the street. But I do not think Tonga played anywhere near as well as they can and I put that down to lack of preparedness for the tournament – beating Canada twice and losing to Fiji, Samoa and Japan is hardly the sort of momentum-building record that you would have thought they would need in advance of meeting Ireland.

Don’t forget that they started well against the world’s No. 1 side, and seemed at one point that they might even cause an unlikely upset. But then Ireland clicked into top gear and blew them away. 

I was there in Aberdeen when Tonga beat Scotland 21-15 back in 2012, and was at Murrayfield to see Scotland hammer Tonga 60-14 in October, 2021, though the islanders were missing key men that day while Gregor Townsend handed debuts to a couple of people who should play on Sunday, Pierre Schoeman and Sione Tuipulotu. Oh, and Kyle Steyn bagged a foursome of tries in that match so I would hope he figures in Nice.     

There’s been much made about Tonga’s use of former All Blacks, qualifying under the World Rugby rules that you can change your nationality if you haven’t been picked for a national team for three years and have a parent or grandparent from a different country. Scotland can’t complain about that as we have Jack Dempsey doing wonders in the back row after previously being capped by Australia.

Tonga coach Toutai Kefu included four former All Blacks in Tonga's starting XV against Ireland: full-back Salesi (Charles) Piutau, centre Malakai Fekitoa, scrum-half Augustine Pulu and number eight Vaea Fifita. To be honest I do not remember any of them making a huge impact for New Zealand, but there’s no such thing as a bad All Black, and I would expect them all to play on Sunday and make their presences felt.

I am more worried about Sione Vailanu, the Tonga back row player who was rescued by Glasgow Warriors from the Worcester wreckage and went on to have a dream season under head coach Franco Smith, ending with being recalled by Kefu to the national side. He played the last quarter against Ireland and I would expect this wrecking ball of a player to start against Scotland and show his many friends and fans here his commitment to Tonga.

To win, Scotland must improve at both scrum and line-out and must keep their discipline at all times, especially when Tonga are handing out the hard stuff as they always do, and above all the Scots must play as if defeat is out of the question – because it is.