AS Gregor Townsend finalised the make-up of his Six Nations training squad over the weekend, ahead of Wednesday’s unveiling, Glasgow Warriors players had a golden opportunity to make one final push for selection.
Exeter Chiefs were perfect opposition for the Warriors because they play relentless, continuity rugby that is very similar to what Scotland can expect on that opening weekend in Dublin.
So what did Townend learn on the day? Perhaps nothing very new but the Scotland coach will have had several things confirmed:
- Zander Fagerson concedes too many set scrum penalties but carries and tackles like a man possessed.
- George Horne is electric with the ball in hand and knows a good support line when he sees one but his game management could be better.
- Scott Cummings is the coming man in the second row.
The most obvious stand out on the day was the continued resurrection of Huw “Lazarus” Jones after being treated like a leper with halitosis for much of Dave Rennie’s tenure at Scotstoun.
We know the unlucky 13 can attack and he did that with gusto yesterday, scoring Glasgow’s second try with a superb outside arc even if it was Nick White, the Exeter scrummy who shouldn’t have been in the defensive line, that Jones rounded.
Admittedly, Jones messed up a couple of opportunities early in the second half when the centre might have been better advised to hack ahead rather than wait in vain for the ball to bounce kindly.
What will have pleased Townsend more than Jones’ attack is that the centre’s defence was pretty solid all afternoon, although he was credited with one missed tackle in the official stats report. Midway through the first half, when Adam Hastings’ grubber was charged down and Exeter went 80 yards to threaten a try, it was Jones that got back to secure the ball just a metre or so from the Glasgow line.
He now has a realistic chance of starting for Scotland in Dublin, perhaps teaming up with his Glasgow buddy Sam Johnson who had a solid rather than spectacular game.
Less impressive was Kyle Steyn. The South African is just the sort of physical specimen that Scotland need to beef up their back line. He did well in attack, especially with that break and kick ahead early in the second half, but his defence is best described as a work in progress.
On 34 minutes his opposite number Jack Nowell got the ball on the right flank. Commentator Scott Hastings called Nowell “electric” but the English winger is all about power rather than pace. He fended Steyn, bumped full-back Glenn Bryce, and then fended Steyn a again for good measure when the Glasgow winger came back for a second bite of the cherry.
To get handed off once would seem unfortunate, as Oscar Wilde almost said, but twice in a matter of a few seconds is more than a little careless. Again, it was Jones who eventually halted Nowell’s progress upfield.
Man-of-the-match Adam Hastings is still the number two number ten behind Finn Russell but he is closing the gap with every appearance. He makes the odd mistake but he does so much that is good, not least his kicking off the tee, that you forgive him the odd missed touch. As he did in the 1872 Cup matches, Hastings took the space in the back field as and when the opposition offered it.
The other thing Hastings did brilliantly was put in several little kick/passes, to circumvent the Chiefs line speed, that deserved better outcomes than they got, especially when the ball refused to sit up for Steyn in the first half.
His pass to Rob Harley for Sam Johnson’s non-try ten minutes from time was a small piece of brilliance … well, almost.
Hooker is one of Townsend’s problem positions in that he has two strong candidates for the job. Fraser Brown did well yesterday with one turnover and a healthy eight tackles. He is a nuggety character who, if he gets the shirt, could also inherit Stuart McInally’s captaincy in the hope that some of his gritty determination rubs off on his team-mates.
Scotland (and Glasgow) need to become a much tougher prospect without the ball and Townsend will have witnessed mixed messages on that front.
Glasgow can be a bit flaky in defence and, sure enough, two of Exeter’s tries came after no more than a handful of phases in the Warriors’ red zone. So far, so expected. Then around the 50 minute mark Exeter’s big men were kept at bay for 25 lung-busting phases only for Matt Kvesic to score within a couple of phases of the re-start.
And finally, a few of us had a smirk on their face when Rennie likened Bryce to Stuart Hogg. The Warriors full-back is a long shot for the Six Nations but he more than justified his coach’s faith, clearly the best full-back on the field on the day, after an incisive display that made you wonder why on earth Rennie hasn’t given him the nod a lot more often?