Scotland seeks quarterfinal berth at Rugby World Cup

NEWCASTLE, England (AP) Scotland flanker John Hardie wasn’t complaining as he spent time on the sidelines during the Rugby World Cup, recovering from the first concussion of his career.

He has learnt that, in rugby, you can’t mess around with the head.

The New Zealand-born Hardie is a good friend of Ben Afeaki, the former prop with the Waikato-based Chiefs and a one-cap New Zealand international, who was forced to retire in April after ongoing issues with concussions.

So when, after sustaining a blow to the head against Japan on the tournament’s opening weekend, Hardie failed some in-depth test questions that make up World Rugby’s new, stringent return-to-play protocol, he didn’t kick up a fuss.

Even if it could have ruined his World Cup ambitions.

”I treated it with a lot of respect,” Hardie says. ”I failed a wee bit, and I was told I had to get it right. All the protocols now are really strict, and it’s just part of the game and they’re really cracking down on it.”

How hard were the questions?

”Pretty difficult,” Hardie says, before adding jokingly: ”I probably wouldn’t have got them (right) if I was OK!”

As a result, Hardie missed Scotland’s games against the United States and South Africa. It was a shame as his parents flew in from Down Under to watch him play for his adopted country.

He is back, though, for what is likely to be a must-win game against Samoa in Newcastle on Saturday. Scotland heads into the final weekend in second place, behind already-qualified South Africa, and two points ahead of Japan.

If the Scots lose to Samoa, they will be overtaken if Japan beat the U.S. Eagles.

With his background in Super Rugby, Hardie says the tough-tackling Samoans are a dangerous proposition, especially as they have something to prove after a disappointing World Cup campaign.

”They can play from anywhere, they can offload, they are big boys and can hit,” Hardie says. ”They can run over you, they can do anything. We are going to have to stick to what we know best and be really structured.”

Here’s a look at Saturday’s three games at the Rugby World Cup:

SCOTLAND vs. SAMOA (7-1-1 overall, 2-0 in RWC), Newcastle, 1330 GMT

Scotland’s injury problems have cleared up for the team’s biggest game of the tournament, with Hardie, flyhalf Finn Russell, and fullback Stuart Hogg all fit to start.

It has been estimated there will be 100,000 Scots in the northern city of Newcastle – which is close to the Scottish border – on the day of the game.

Captain Ofisa Treviranus is missing for the Samoans in a lineup showing seven changes from the one that started the 26-5 loss to Japan, which knocked Samoa out of quarterfinal contention.

AUSTRALIA vs. WALES (27-10-1 overall, 4-1 in RWC), Twickenham, 1545 GMT

First place in Pool A – and avoiding South Africa in the quarterfinals – is at stake when Wales and Australia meet at Twickenham. Both have already beaten England to bundle the host team out of the competition.

Their meetings are usually tight, and invariably won by the Wallabies. Ten in a row, in fact, since 2008. In the last five, there have been five points or fewer in it.

Australia is missing flanker Michael Hooper, who is suspended.

Wales has no fresh problems at the end of an injury-blighted pool campaign.

ENGLAND vs. URUGUAY (1-0 overall, 1-0 in RWC), Manchester, 1900 GMT

For England, a trip up north to play Uruguay was supposed to represent a breather before tougher challenges in the knockout stage.

Not anymore.

The English will say farewell to their own tournament on an evening when their game might not even be the biggest rugby occasion in Manchester, usually a hotbed of English football. Sharing the billing is the rugby league final between Wigan and Leeds in Europe’s Super League.

There’s surely no chance of England losing to the amateurs and semi-professionals who make up the Uruguay team, but even a big win at the soccer stadium of Manchester City won’t detract from the humiliation of being the first host team to bow out at the pool stage.