Six takeaways for a Six Nations fallow week

Iain Morrison celebrates a purple patch for European rugby, digs up some interesting stats from the campaign so far and celebrates a few diamonds in the rough

Matt Fagerson, who scored Scotland's fifth try against Wales, has some pretty impressive tackling stats for the tournament so far. Image: © Craig Watson -
Matt Fagerson, who scored Scotland's fifth try against Wales, has some pretty impressive tackling stats for the tournament so far. Image: © Craig Watson -

1. A headline I never thought I’d see.

“How All Blacks can close the gap on northern rivals.”

So proclaimed the New Zealand Herald after two rounds of rugby. Hallelujah! I know it was aimed at France and Ireland, the best two teams in world rugby, according to World Rugby, but it says something about the balance of power which has clearly edged northwards, not that anyone from the Republic would agree with me. Europe is used to bossing the finances of the game, largely thanks to the Six Nations which is hugely lucrative, but also because of the sheer wealth/size of the populations of France, the British Isles (Ireland included) and now Italy. But now even the rugby in the north may be edging ahead as Ireland, France and Scotland fill three of the top five places in the rankings, New Zealand and South Africa occupy the other two. Will the trend continue or is it merely a blip?

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2. Dave Irwin’s history lesson.

Ahead of that Titanic clash against France, Ireland boss Andy Farrell invited former Ireland and Lions centre Dave Irwin to chat to his squad. Only Irwin would not just be talking about rugby. He would be commentating on ‘the troubles’ as they are euphemistically called, a subject he knows a little too well. Irwin was skipper of Ulster in 1987 and he was driving two other Ulstermen, Nigel Carr and Philip Rainey, from Belfast to Dublin for an Ireland camp. They passed a car going in the opposite direction carrying Lord Justice Gibson and his wife Cecily at the exact moment that the IRA blew it, and the couple, to pieces. Irwin was relatively unhurt; the others not so lucky. An exceptional openside flanker, Carr never played again. I remember the incident but only vaguely. I am sure it resonates strongly with the older generation in Ireland but this is scarcely believable stuff to youngsters like Garry Ringrose (born 1995) or Hugo Keenan (1996) never mind the foreign legion like Jamison Gibson-Park, James Lowe or Mack Hansen who presumably know little or nothing of that era. “They blew what!?” Irwin’s point? Simply that playing rugby for Ireland is a rare and almost unique privilege, one of the very few sports (golf and cricket the others) that unites the North and the South and that is surely still worth celebrating.

3. I plough through the stats so you don’t have to.

Matt Fagerson still tops the tackle count after two rounds with 45 to his name closely followed by a pair of Frenchmen, Thibaut Flamant (43) and Anthony Jelonch (42), and then Luke Crosbie (32) which is good going since he has only played 97 minutes while the other top performers all have 160 under their belts. Somewhat further down the tackling list comes the baby faced assassin Ange Capuozzo who, after the opening game against France, had managed no tackles whatsoever although he had missed one. He has since improved his standing to tackles made: two, missed tackles: two. He isn’t the only player to have a perfectly balanced defence as England’s Henry Slade is also credited with making, and missing, four tackles apiece. England missed 41 tackles against Italy, a Championship record, and still won comfortably! Scotland’s discipline has been the best of all teams, just the 20 penalties conceded (compared to Wales’ 32) and most importantly Scotland have yet to concede the dumbest penalty of the lot … offside (Wales have conceded nine since you ask). France’s heavyweight pack did some damage last year to Ireland’s set scrum but this year they had the put-in at exactly one scrum all afternoon in Dublin, which says something about the number of errors Ireland make.

4. Try, try and try again.

And almost all of Scotland’s touchdowns come from the back line. The forwards, I mentioned last time out, have scored just two of the nine tries in the championship thus far. What I omitted to say is that if we take into account the Argentina match in November, then 15 of Scotland’s last 17 tries have come from the piano players rather than the piano shifters. All eight tries against the Pumas were scored by backs … Darcy Graham grabbing a hat trick for himself. More recently, all five of Scotland’s tries against Wales took four phases or less (and six of their nine tries in the opening two rounds took two phases or less). Three of Ireland’s tries against Wales took five or more phases. Two teams, two very different strategies. Moreover, the breakdown of the Scottish team is interesting. Just one of the starting pack did NOT come through the Scottish system: Pierre Schoeman. In the backs just two starters DID come through the Scottish system: Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg. So far in the Six Nations our twin South African wingers have scored four tries between them. Remember that Julian Montoya sledge aimed at Jamie Richie in the November Test: “Do you want me to speak Afrikaans?”.

5. A diamond in the rough.

The emergence of Kyle Steyn, Duhan van der Merwe, Sione Tuipulotu and so many others makes you pause to think. The first thing you want to ask is why on earth their respective countries didn’t see the latent talent in these players? One of the obvious answers is that the likes of South Africa have so many rugby players that even someone as obviously blessed with the attributes of speed and strength as van der Merwe can slip through the net. I read that Tuipulotu played three seasons at U20 level for Australia so he must have been on their radar. He was not hugely impressive on his first start in the 12 shirt, against Wales last season, but he has since grown into the role so well that he now looks all but indispensable to Gregor Townsend. Additional rough diamonds include Ireland’s Mackenzie Hansen, born in Canberra to a mother from Cork. He played just 21 times in four seasons for the Brumbies before becoming a regular starter in the number one team in the world. Neither he nor Tuipulotu got anywhere near the Wallabies squad as far as I can ascertain. How many other ‘journeymen’ players out there might flourish at the sharp end of the game if they were only granted the opportunity?

6. It never rains but it pours in the valleys.

Welsh rugby union players threatened strike action last week largely because the four regional teams have yet to table any offers to those multitude of players that are coming off contract at the end of the season (approximately one third of their joint rosters). It is obvious why the regions have been dragging their feet, they want a 30 percent reduction in pay, although one source suggested that the WRU had yet to finalise the regional budgets, which would make anyone ask for a time out. I am in a WhatsApp group with a lot of Welsh folk. When the news broke the response was: “Welsh players strike … how will we tell?” More bad news for Welsh rugby arrived late last week as one overly aggressive player was banned for a whopping 192 weeks after slapping the cards out of a referee’s hands before verbally remonstrating with the poor man. The player in question, Lewis Jones of Fairwater RFC, has form in this respect so the beaks threw him under the bus.

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About Iain Morrison 100 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.


  1. I am also old enough to remember the dismal Johnson and Williams eras. And some pundits – not entirely with tongue in cheek – suggesting Scotland should be dropped from the six nations.

    Win, lose or draw, this current batch of players have been great to watch. And whether they cash in on that or not by winning something, this is still a golden era for us to see them try.

  2. One takeaway for me is the level of competition – and desire – to get into this Scotland team right now. One great example being that it looked for all the world to me like the Mish was being lined up for a return to the match-day 23, with Dempsey returning to his club. But after Crosbie’s tackle count and the Wallaby Jock’s man of the match performance, how could you possibly drop either of them? It does not help your prospects being part of the Edinburgh team right now, for their performance on Saturday was so abject that it would have been hard for the Messiah himself to shine amidst the ruins. We need two strong professional sides for a healthy national team.

    • Crosbie if fit well worth his place. As are Dempsey, Fagerson and of course Captain Richie. Watson has done nothing to suggest he should replace any of them.
      And ponder on this – when Darge (the best of all of them, and with a higher still ceiling) regains fitness, where exactly does Watson fit in?

      • I wasn’t convinced Crosbie was quite on it in either match so far, but as I recall he played very well in the Autumn, maybe not quite fit?

        Have to agree re Hamish, he needs some time to recover his fitness and I’d choose the others over him at the mo, but I’m sure he’ll be back.

    • He made a pretty humiliating U Turn which although does deserve praise, but also, calls his prior judgement into question. Also, Scotland haven’t done anything yet, Sunday will decide where we really stand.

    • I think the Toony bashers were perfectly entitled given the modest returns from such a gifted crop of players, while the tactics in previous times have been ill-advised if not non-existent. Selection in particular has had me holding my hands in despair, for example the non-inclusion of Finn in the autumn squad for what could only have been personal reasons. It is certainly no secret that the coach has not got on with his squad on more than one occasion. When Townsend started he introduced the folly that was ‘chaos rugby’, then he overcompensated and took the attacking edge off his team. Now after six years he looks to have the balance right and the guys seem in good shape – although we haven’t achieved anything exceptional just yet ands two swallows do not make a Six Nations summer. I would be delighted if we did – absolutely, for it has been far too long – and I will be the first to take my hat off to the man for rescuing his reputation. But in the meantime I make no apologies sir, nor are any due.

      • Ron,
        Negative comments during an unusually positive time for Scotland.
        GT has made several fundamental mistakes in his tenure ‘fastest rugby in the world’ , then a 360d change to overly pragmatic , Harris, Russell 4th choice 10. All the so called Toonie Bashers were alluding to was the waste of a very talented squad.
        Hastings getting leathered by a big Fijian forced his hand. Finn Russell returned and Jones back at 13, with Crosbie in the back row. Great defence, few errors and space for Russell……

      • I’m not sure if you read the excellent interview in the Offside Line given by Finn Russell. Surely people must realise that he was not in a great place. What is really illuminating for me is that neither Gregor or Finn have broken the party line issues that he wasn’t picked on form. Do any of us really believe that!!

    • We’re still around and vindicated by fair comment on past performance.Russell has helped dig him out a hole. There’s nothing like an expiring contract to concentrate the mind.

    • You’re bang on Ron! Won 2 in a row which no other coach managed during the 6 Nations, not that we did it that often during the 5 Nations. I think he now has the best record of any Scotland coach since the role of advisor to the captain came about. Of course he has the greatest pool of talented players at his disposal than any other coach has had……… hang on can that be right given the ineptitude of our governing body the SRU. Something doesn’t quite add when I read all the knowledgable comments made on the Offside Line over the years. Of course there have been mistakes made but I reckon the current regime on and off the pitch have done a pretty good job.
      We just need the clubs to look to the present and the future to put together a structure that young men and women want and not what they think they want.
      Triple crown and share of the championship, what dreams are made of. 🐻😊

      • A small point here- we have won 2 in a row many times in the six nations.
        He won the opening 2 games, which we hadnt done since the late nineties.

  3. Points 3 & 4.
    Will Sunday be the end of another false dawn or will our performance in Paris indicate that our World Cup draw might not be the total disaster it appears to be at the moment. It is really good statistics that our ¾’s are scoring but it needs to be at the very least parity in the forwards and France and Ireland will be a big test for the team.
    Saturday may well be an indication with Wales away to England, I doubt if Wales will have any better mindset following on from the problems of budgets and contracts but England will be desperate to get their act together.
    Reflecting on the mess down in Cardiff, only Ireland seem to have identified the correct formula from the get go, but with their 4 regions an existing entity it was easier for them to adapt to the professional era organically.
    Of the other Unions England’s Premiership could well be in for another Club hitting the buffers, Wales are too busy banning Tom Jones vocals, dare I say that whether by accident or design for the moment we seem to making the best of just two professional teams, but I still feel there has to be something more effective than S6 as a stepping stone.
    It’s a bit of an aside but how about this, if World Rugby and the Unions retraced the Laws regarding replacements and made it for genuine injuries only with follow up protocols to stop ‘Dean’s Bloodgate’ then there wouldn’t be a need for half a team away on International duty, or on the URC fixtures and it would be possible to run Professional 2ndXV’s with home and away in the URC fixtures just like dare I say the amateur days, that would be better than the super 6 for bringing on talent would it not, and as an extra bonus it might just get the game back to a game for all shapes, sizes and abilities and not nurture 50 minute forwards.
    The costs involved could well be similar for the professional outfits and the Super6 costs could be used in development and emerging players coming from the existing traditional clubs, rather than the faux composite teams and the like, and my personal thought is that would add continuity and identity to a greater degree from the amateur grassroots and through to the professional status.
    Just a thought, I’m sure if it has flaws somebody will point them out.

    • Give it a rest George, the Super 6 is a roaring success.

      What now needs to happen is expansion, more club teams must step up.

      Besides the entertainment itself, we have now seen the U20 finally look like they can be a match for anyone physically, should that continue to be the case over the following years, there can be no doubt how beneficial S6 is.

    • With regard to the U20 the same as is being said of the senior side would seem applicable there also, yes improvement but is it down to the S6, and is it a ‘roaring success’ I’m not sure it is that good but happy for you if you are of that opinion. As regards your ‘give it a rest’ if you don’t agree with my opinion – no problem, but I am still entitled to make it, politely.

    • On subs I totally agree, it’s a mess. However it suits the big nations to have more players involved in match day therefore it won’t change.
      Re pro team 2nd xv’s, was discussed before Super came about after the clubs rejected a 8 team league. The problem as has been seen in England is the cost, which is a lot higher than you think and the number of players required. The pro teams require 40 + squads to run 1 team, think of the numbers required to run 2.
      The Super 6 is contributing not only on the pitch with players but also developing back room staff.
      It needs some change, I’d like to see the season more aligned to a normal season, cross border to give our players experience of playing other countries and another team or two.

      • Thank you for that information regarding 2nd XV’s: And as if to remind us – Utube are running the 2007 7 minute disaster against Italy in a prominent position, still not convinced about Super6 however, I do worry about France and Italy U20’s the lads will have their work cut out against them and Ireland look to be in the £seats.

    • It is impossible to say if a player is really injured or feigning it unless his leg is hanging off or something. That is why the concept of injury only subs was abandoned so long ago.

      • That is why I suggested that there should be protocols to at least make an effort to identify faux injury.

      • its impossible to have any match day protocols (or even post match) to identify faux injuries. Best could do would be is to force any subbed player to miss at least the next match. Which would favour those with bigger deeper squads even more.

      • “Best could do would be is to force any subbed player to miss at least the next match” – Exactly that’s a protocol and perhaps more than a single game.

  4. I remember the days of Matt Williams and Scott Johnson, when Murrayfield struggled to sell all its tickets and the team was a shambles. The way we’re playing in the backs at present should hopefully encourage youngsters to get involved and the more youngsters playing, the better chance there is of domestic backs finding their way through. If we keep it up and offer the same in the World Cup, that can only be good, but I wonder if the pro games might be better served in Scotland if they were free to air too. It’s not going to happen, I know, but the Gaelic coverage on BBC Alba probably produced their highest viewing figures.
    It is what it is and these same foreign born players will be available for viewing at Scotstoun and the DAM Health stadium after the 6 Nations. I used to wander along to Hughenden on dreich Friday evenings to watch Glasgow play and the numbers in attendance struggled to justify being called a crowd. I think I heard Scotsoun last week was 7,000+, so it’s certainly a lot healthier than it was.

    • Well said,some realism at last. We don’t realise how well we are doing at the moment, on and off the field. People love going to Murrayfield now, you couldn’t have said that 10–15 years ago. We will have our ups and downs but at the moment we are punching well above our weight.

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