Scotland’s positive Autumn provides grounds for optimism but progress is relative

Head coach Gregor Townsend says he will cast his net wider than he did this Autumn when he selects his squad for the Six Nations

Gregor Townsend believes he has more depth in his Scotland squad than every before. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Gregor Townsend believes he has more depth in his Scotland squad than every before. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

GREGOR TOWNSEND has promised that he will cast his selection net even wider than he did during this Autumn Test Series as he looks to pull together a squad capable of competing for the Six Nations title in the New Year – and that could mean adding to the 12 new caps he awarded this November, but may also involve recalling some veterans who he believes aren’t quite ready to be put out to pasture yet despite being well into their 30s.

While the Scotland head coach is clearly encouraged by his team’s record of three wins from four matches during the last month, the performances haven’t been quite as slick as some of the score-lines perhaps suggest. We also have to take into account how Scotland’s northern hemisphere brethren have shaped up during the same period.

England hammered Tonga then beat Australia and South Africa, France won fairly comfortably in the end against Argentina, Georgia and New Zealand, and Ireland beat New Zealand and hammered both Japan and Argentina. Even Wales managed to bounce back from a tough series opener when a depleted side lost heavily against New Zealand to run South Africa close then beat Fiji and Australia.


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Like Scotland, all four of those sides will approach 2022 feeling that they have managed to grow their player base at the same time as developing squad cohesion through playing three or four tough matches on back-to-back weekends, so it is going to be fascinating to see how things play out when they are all thrown in against each other in just over two months’ time.

“What pleased me most was the reaction of players when they’ve been given opportunities,” said Townsend. “Players look like they’ve grown when they’ve put a Scotland jersey on.

“Right from the Tonga game, when it was Luke Crosbie, Jamie Hodgson, Rufus McLean, others who played that day, right through to the guys coming off the bench against Japan. It’s really pleasing that the environment they come into, the Test-match arena, brings the best out of them.

“And that’s absolutely given us more depth, with players competing for starting positions.  That may not come in the Six Nations. That’s down to them. It may not come in the summer tour [which appears set for Argentina] or in the build-up to the World Cup. But we’ve got more players putting their hands up and making it more difficult to select a team.

“On the field, we’ve shown that we still have the ability to score tries out of nothing, in the South Africa game and Tonga game in particular,” he continued. “But we’ve also developed the power side of our game. We didn’t show it enough against South Africa, but against Japan, our scrum and maul were very good. Our work at the breakdown was also very good against Japan – and it had to improve, because it wasn’t good enough against South Africa.”

It is worth keeping in mind that Scotland came into this series without arguably their first choice hooker in Fraser Brown, their Lions loose-head prop Rory Sutherland, and their top two second-rows in Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings, all because of injury. Cummings returned to face Japan on Saturday, but the others were all confined to the sidelines throughout. That’s a fair bit of experience and firepower for a nation of Scotland’s playing resources to be missing up front.

Meanwhile, behind the scrum, Cameron Redpath may only have one cap to his name, but those 80 minutes against England back in February certainly set the imagination running about whether he could be the missing link in the middle of the park to complement Finn Russell‘s flair and Chris Harris‘ directness.

 

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Townsend is hoping to have all these players back for the Six Nations. “Jonny Gray will be back next week or the week after for Exeter,” he explained. “Cam Redpath is targeting the beginning of January, maybe before that because he feels he’s ahead of schedule.  Fraser Brown is looking at being back in the next few weeks – we had better news on him this week. Scott Cummings came back against Japan and played really well, which was a bonus. I’m probably missing players out but those are the guys involved in last year’s Six Nations.

“Ideally we would be able to select from all our players and have no injuries, that’s the first thing we want. A more identifiable group helps cohesion.

“I would say the games against Australia and Japan, we had similar back-lines and a number of positions in the forwards, all similar the team who played France. So there is a thread running through our teams, players who have been selected more regularly. 

“[But] we’re going to cast our net more widely in the Six Nations, too, for guys who missed selection this time. Guys like Sean Maitland and WP Nel, we’re very aware that they can play at the highest level. This wasn’t a tournament where we needed to involve them, we wanted to look at other players. But if their form is consistent, as it has been already this season, they’ll come into the mix for our strongest team.”

Townsend also explained that his focus over the next eight weeks will not be all on the Six Nations, with preparation for the 2023 World Cup also needing some attention.

“I’m going to Paris on Monday and then going around France to look at hotels and training venues for the World Cup,” he revealed.

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About David Barnes 2679 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

32 Comments

  1. Some interesting comments. Thought we were a bit up and down. Some really top class tries and some excellent defence but let down by indiscipline. Lacked fluency in attack and there is something clearly wrong with the balance at centre. Cam Redpath’s eventu return should help. Would like to see Huw Jones involved in some way. Of the newcomers impressed by Schoeman, Ashman and especially Bayliss. Hope Craig will be back once fit and think Vellacott would provide real competition to Price. MacLean a future talent.

  2. The strength in depth is more than I ever believe Scotland has ever had, we need it to be competitive nowadays. We are in general playing a brand of rugby which suits our players now and that has in the past.
    Winning trophies needs us to have our strongest team available and a good chunk of luck. Not many trophies in a 150 years but if we can win 50% of our games that should be deemed a success. 🐻

  3. Spot on article for me Barnsey.

    Glad you mentioned the likes of Maitland as plenty seem to have discarded him altogether at this stage. We are building some depth but still feel a solid starting 2nd row and number 8 away from really starting to cement things. People have mentioned Henderson from Leicester and might be worth keeping an eye on him.

    Centre make up still doesn’t feel quite right and think this could be exploited by Ireland in particular. Whether we can really think about Redpath at this stage I’m not so sure. I am sure he’ll still be making a push for Fraser Dingwall.

    All in all if you are offered 3 from 4 at the start of this you’d take it…but can’t help feeling a bit flat and that this 6 nations could well be the hardest yet

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  4. Perhaps part of it is down to our collective rugby philosophy as a country: we want to see open, expansive rugby where athletic forwards hold sway over the power, the ugly stuff, the dark arts etc; the former is the way many of us were trained in fact. But we have to be pragmatic as that foregoing is the winning brand right now as witnessed with SA, England and Ireland. Being idealistic isn’t winning us major trophies. Whether we have units of the size, needle and belligerence is another matter but if we want to win (and we all do), we have to put out the closest thing we’ve got.
    SA and Ireland are succesful at the mo because they have big, powerful men who rule the roost at the breakdown, clear out quickly, win the ‘wrestling matches’ and therefore provide a stable, forward moving platform allowing others in the backrow and backs to fire off shots. The last our group are more than capable of doing, the first not so. For me, the combos are not correct, namely Johnson-Harris (not enough guile, has to be one or t’other, Redpath and Jones would alter the dynamic), Ritchie-Watson-Fagerson (all are good enough but for me Fagerson is a flanker, specialist jackler or ball carrier required) and even the back-three balance. Maitland is big, very good under the high ball but now lacks gas and isn’t getting younger. D’arcy’s a cracking wee player – brave, hardy, a good finisher, pacy and dynamic but the unfortunate reality is the big teams kick a lot and to handle that you need the Maitlands of this world. Ireland targeted D’arcy successfully in Dublin I remember, but, again to emphasise, I think he’s a fab player.

    • as a nation we simply do not produce the huge rugby playing guys in sufficient numbers. Partly its genes, partly – mainly perhaps – it player numbers. The more players the more likely you have a bigger pool of big guys to pick from who are good enough

      SA, England, France, and yes Ireland all have far bigger player numbers
      Hence we try to develop a slightly different playing model – while trying to ensure we are not physically trashed; we won’t win many arm wrestles when games descend into that

      • Hi Septic, we do, and it’s based on a New Zealand model we similarly are not capable of playing! I suppose key is striking that balance between holding our own, getting parity up front, more dominance against the Japans of this world and keeping that athleticism and ability to move the opposition around. We have had the same type of lock over and over and over again, athletic, rangy, good at lineout time et al but overpowered against the big guns. It does-not-work. Hamilton and Hines were exceptions to the rule. Johnny Gray is a good player with a fantastic work and tackle rate but his tackle ‘type’ is not generally speaking the melting meted out by Etzebeth (who is an unusual specimen, granted) and others. But many interpret this as physicality, which it is to a point, but physicality is tackle dominance, among other things. There isn’t actually a huge difference in size between our locks and Ireland’s but the Irish locks have ‘dog’ and completey schooled ours in the last game. No team will worry about a Gray-Cummings pairing. And no Cummings has not been our best lock, he catches the eye for his athleticism but it’s not congruent to what winning teams have in their ranks. I’m far happier when it’s Gilchrist and Skinner tbh, Craig looked good too when he came on vs France. If they insist on Cummings, he needs the most powerful, gnarly lock we can muster alongside.

      • We produce plenty of those players but the current protocol is to tell 98% every year at age of 15 they will never be looked at again… allowing the annointed few to play a dozen games every 18 months with no real intensity cos we deleted their competition before hiring some sh jobbers at fourteen times the cost….and another decade of 6n and WC failure yay!!! It’s working so well why not double down n keep going….Christ if we aren’t careful we could revert n find another Finn….ugh,…tbf it would b vulgar to actually win things like Irish do with their CEO on 30% of Dodson wage….

  5. Three wins out of four is OK on the face of it, but we struggled for long periods to subdue an average Japanese team, and the South African game was very worrying. With 6 Nations and a World Cup looming we’ve still got a lot of work to do if we’re to beat the best. Just being competitive isn’t enough. Strength in depth is one thing but how much of that “strength” is actual world class. Not enough I fear.

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  6. All of a sudden looks like we’re well-stocked for looseheads (McBeth potentially coming into the mix too) and short on tightheads. Nel is a fantastic servant to Scottish rugby but can’t go on forever. Kebble’s transition to TH makes sense but is still in its early phase. Is there anyone up and coming to give ZF proper competition for the next 5-10 years?

    • Kebble’s move to TH makes no sense. He plays for Glasgow who have Fagerson, Bergan, Pieretto already, plus McCallum short term and Murphy Walker coming through the academy.
      The Kebble move is SRU inspired and necessary because of the mess Cockerill made at Edinburgh. I very much doubt Bergan thought “I really want to sign for Glasgow and play second fiddle to Zander, rather than stay at Edinburgh and play most weeks because WP is likely to be winding down”
      Looks like another Cockerill p£ssed off; maybe not just being a bully, maybe signing numerous very average nSQ tight head props. Should have ben sacked 2 years ago, the repercussions are still being felt via things like this

  7. I suspect that wider net will capture Ben Vellacott, as he is proving with Edinburgh he can provide that extra spark that seems to have gone missing at 9 recently.

  8. I’m not sure what Cummings brings to the party these days. Lacks the physicality of Skinner and invariably either drops the ball with the line beckoning (Japan) or gets into mix ups with other forwards (Gary Graham v Wales).

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    • Cummmings has been head and shoulders the best Scottish lock for 2 seasons anyway. If you can’t see that…………….
      Yes he is just back and made an error. By that measure every player should be dropped and never play again

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  9. One or two players are not quite back to their best, such as Watson and Graham, others are coming back from injury and there were some strong debuts, so these autumn games answered some questions and posed others. Hopefully the interim between now and the 6 Nations will be kind to who is currently fit and Townsend will clearly have some recovered to consider.
    The experience against South Africa was useful for the world cup pool, but it was interesting to hear John Barclay’s comments during the game against Japan that the tactics were wrong at the breakdown. I still wonder about Townsend’s tactical nous and just how reliant we are on Tandy for grinding out results.

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    • agree with this.
      Watson did not look fully fit, a shadow of the player of the past couple of seasons

      Barclay’s comment about the breakdown is correct. we got it wrong, both sides of the ball. Japan were able to recycle much more quickly, so our tactics were not just penalised but ineffective. On or own ball, Japan committed as few as possible and filled their defence. We would pass one out rather than just occasionally attack the fringes or pick and drive trough the middle – and draw opponents in, narrow the defence. This applied in all the tests

  10. I’m happy enough. We are difficult to beat and awkward. We have a good defence. Tandy has done wonders with that from where we were. We tried the all out attacking, fast-flowing rugby and it did not work. We are not that team.

    The errors are frustrating. Particularly at the breakdown. Hands coming off the ground back to contest the ball, coming in at the side etc. Madness for pro players. But that is the coaching groups responsibility to eradicate. The forwards pack are the worst offenders and there have been some “rush of blood” moments that just drive you crazy. Fagerson is turning back on himself in those respects.

    But we also have some key forward players missing as the article clearly states.

    I’d be Toonies harshest critic a lot of the time. But not this time. I think if we are hard to beat that is the best footing to be on. We build it from there. I’d rather that, and win, than be good to look at and take a shoeing in the 6 nations.

  11. This article has it spot on, for on the surface of it three wins out of four is good. But in context they were achieved against cannon fodder in Tonga, a weak Japanese side that got thumped by 60 against Ireland and struggled to beat Portugal, and only just against a tired Aussie team that got whitewashed on its European tour. Second half performances against the Saffers and Japan were poor. The positive newbies for me were the dynamic Ashman, the abrasive Schoeman, the sure presence of Bayliss in the back row and McLean’s flying feet. You’d like to say Steyn too, but we were treated to no more of him after his double brace. Why? His physicality was missed against the Saffers. A lot of Toonie’s selections similarly bordered on the bizarre for me, not least the fact that we saw so little of Hastings given Finn’s frailties. Tonga was a great chance to blood Thompson as a starter, but no. If the net is being extended further (but hopefully not just for the sake of it) then perhaps Vellacott – right under Gregor’s nose – might make the next squad, as should Henderson the Leicester lock. This could be seen as a useful autumn, but others have made demonstrably more progress and stolen a march on us – by which I mean Ireland, France and England. Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s going to be a very tough Six Nations and discipline will need to improve considerably, as will the performance of our forwards in scrum and line. Can we do it? I very much hope so. We set the bar high last year and I would like to see a similarly resilient team take the field, first up against the English.

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    • Bang on about next year’s 6N. The visit to Dublin in the last round is going to be particularly challenging, Cardiff is always a tough venue to visit and both England and France look to have got over whatever issues they’ve were suffering last year.

      Expectations have risen which shows we’ve been on a long upward curve, but it’s very difficult to imagine us going to Dublin with a 6N championship still on the line. On the other hand, we can win our opening game against England, we are good enough to beat Wales, France do not like travelling to Murrayfield, so make a good start and momentum could see us do v well.

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    • This a a spot on reflection of the Autumn tests. If we give away 15 penalties a game in the 6 Nations we will be slaughtered particularly by England.
      We will need to raise the intensity. When you see the Irish intensity it is miles ahead of our own.
      Last year our defence was the match winner but the Autumn tests leaked too many tries and line breaks. I have a concern that we are basking in an improbable glory. All the other home countries have improved since last year and England cannot be as bad as they were. A good start would be a win against England but it wont happen unless we have a back row that is more competitive/intense but also disciplined (a big ask).
      Our biggest weakness is our props.

      • 5 tries conceded in 4 games isn’t that bad a statistic at all actually. It’s one less than France, the same amount as Wales (not including the NZ game where they were weaker and shipped 7 tries), and one more than Ireland in this Autumn period (all in one less game). Only England of the 6N Teams are much better this Autumn having only conceded one try.

        Italy on the other hand conceded more tries than Scotland, France and England combined with 13.

        On the opposite side of the ball, Ireland scored 20 tries, England 16 (although 11 were against Tonga), France 11, Wales 9 (including the NZ game), and Italy 3. Scotland managed 8 in the bigger games, and 10 against the weakened Tongan side.

        So in ratios of tries averaged over games:

        Ireland 6.67 for/1.25 against
        England 5.33 for/0.33 against
        France 3.67 for/2 against
        Scotland 2.67(4.5 w. Tonga) for/1.33 (1.25 w. Tonga) against
        Wales 2 for/1.67 (3 w. NZ) against
        Italy 1 for/4.33 against

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  12. Playing the game is the easy part, playing the referee is an art. Our loose forwards in particular need to learn fast when not to play the ball at the breakdown and the coaches need to be more forensic in studying each referee (Like S. Africa do ) and their methodology in a game, they have become the most important men in the game. If you look back at any of the games in the Autumn, refs miss an awful lot. The lengths that Springboks go to win a game are incredible..check out the Female physio during the games they played this Autumn !!!!

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  13. Lack of line breakering forwards and an infuriatingly consistent ability to give away penalties or make unforced errors are hamstringing our forward progress.
    On Saturday I got the feeling we are not very well coached, relying on Hogg & Russell’s genuis rather than team tactics. Saturday was crying out for a disciplined 20 phases then (only then) release VDM into the created space.

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    • There is a difference between “Play what is in front of you” (which is the mantra quoted regularly) and “give the ball to Finn and wait for the magic” (which is what it appeared to mean).

  14. GT can select from a cast of thousands but until we can get our discipline right we are running into a brick wall. Leaking 15 or so penalties a game will have always have us on the back foot. Is it a red mist descending or can we just not manage referees the way Sexton, Wyn Jones do?

  15. There is no doubt we now have significant depth. Whether it is more than any of the other 6 nations, is open to question, but it is certainly more than we have had for a while. In tbe days before professional rugby, and the 1872 cup around New Year, the 1st Saturday of the year often featured an international trial game of The Probables v The Possibles. This years match would be ‘tasty’ with a Probables team based on those who played most in the Autumn and a Possibles team consisting of anyone else…

    PROBABLES
    Hogg; Graham, Harris, Johnson, DVDM; Russell, Price; Schoeman, Turner, Fagerson Z, Gilchrist, Skinner, Ritchie, Fagerson M, Watson;
    Subs Kinghorn, Scott, Horne G, Bhatti, McInally, Kebble, Hodgson, Bayliss

    POSSIBLES
    Maitand; McLean, Tuipolutu, Redpath, Steyn; Hastings, Dobie; Sutherland, Brown, Berghan, Gray J, Cummings, Haining, Thomson, Darge;
    Subs Jones H, Thompson R, Steele, Hislop, Ashman, Nel, Toolis, Crosbie

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    • I would have more than one or two of your possibles in the probables – and you’re right, I wouldn’t like to guess which team would come out on top!

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