SATURDAY’S win in Wales was far more important to the long term growth of this squad than the slightly scruffy manner of the victory because Scotland are a team in transition.
In that respect, Wales are one step ahead of the Scots as a team that has already transitioned, having fallen so far that they are unrecognisable as the Grand Slam side of 2019.
Gregor Townsend has ditched the ‘fastest rugby’ philosophy that saw its apotheosis or nadir, take your pick, when Scotland played Ireland in the Rugby World Cup last year. On that day in Yokohama the Scots played like their hair was on fire, desperately attempting to pass the ball around the Irish defence without ever bludgeoning it out of shape. Townsend ignored the old maxim that you have to earn the right to go wide and Scotland paid the price; a four try, 27-3 shellacking.
With 49% of possession the Scots made 180 passes that day. With 58% possession in Llanelli on Saturday, Scotland made just 151 passes and even that number was skewed by the final ten minutes when Scotland ran through 22 phases of possession (with about 24 passes) deep inside Welsh territory just to eat up the clock. The very fact that this Scotland squad managed 22 phases of play in attack without throwing a Hail Mary is proof enough of a sea-change in attitude.
In wet and windy conditions, route one rugby off nine seems like a pragmatic way to build pressure on the opposition and that’s the point. Scotland have given up being the Cavaliers of Test match rugby and adopted a harder nosed Roundhead approach.
Jeremy Guscott in the BBC studios said that he couldn’t see what Scotland were trying to do in attack but twice in the first half the Scots played one pass, bash-it-up rugby going through several phases in one direction before switching play the opposite direction and immediately going wide.
Townsend is looking for a compromise where his team can still utilise a dangerous back three in attack but, here’s the difference, only after the forwards have dented the opposition line with some very hard, direct running. Better conditions should see a more adventurous approach, depending upon the opposition, as Townsend tweaks the balance of risk/reward.
On a couple of occasions the Scots tactic almost worked. Stuart Hogg interacted with Chris Harris to good effect in one first half move when the full-back might have been better off backing himself rather than making a pass that Harris was unable to hold. In another half chance, Blair Kinghorn should have given a pass before he was tackled, although he was reeled in from behind, unaware of the danger.
There are two problem positions that Townsend needs to review if he is to make the best of his new found pragmatic play. The first is inside centre. With injuries to Finn Russell and Adam Hastings it may be that James Lang takes over the number ten shirt but, as and when the coach can call upon his front line playmakers, there is little point playing a ‘second five eighth’ (a second playmaker) at twelve.
Russell and Hastings are both dominant characters who are unlikely to allow anyone else to call the shots and if Lang is there as an alternative kicking option, he didn’t put boot to ball once (that I can recall) throughout the 80 minutes.
Townsend would be better off with a strike runner at 12 to contest the gain line and Sam Johnson is a likely replacement if he comes through Glasgow’s Monday evening match against Leinster unscathed.
The other problem position is in the back-row where, with Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson the stand-out candidates at 6 and 7, Scotland are looking for an everyman eight who can carry, distribute and defend. Blade Thompson had a quiet match against Wales and he is a tall man, easy to tackle compared to the more compact figures of Nick Haining or Magnus Bradbury. Matt Fagerson is not a bulky ball carrier but he does boast the highest work rate of all the candidates.
Moving away from their pace of play, Scotland have found alternative ways of getting a toe hold in a Test match with their set scrum now weaponised. It was Rory Sutherland who was the stand-out in the opening four matches of the Scotland campaign. On Saturday Zander Fagerson put his hand up with one scrum penalty capping a dominant display.
As a tighthead, Fagerson has no business going on the offensive, one man effectively pushing against two, but that is what he managed in Llanelli. An aggressive tighthead is a rare beast, the silverback of the rugby world, worth a small fortune, and 24-year-old Fagerson has all his best years ahead of him. Watch this space because the big French clubs will be doing just that and who would begrudge Fagerson his chance to follow Finn Russell across the sea?
There were two other statistics that stood out from the melee. The first was the penalty count which went 16-6 in Scotland’s favour. That gives a better idea than the final score of which team was exerting pressure and which team found itself under the cosh.
If Scotland won that count they lost the turnovers by a similar margin of 14-5 as all too often the Scottish ball-carrier got himself isolated.
And on a wider note, should we be asking whether 2020 is the year that saw the end of Celtic domination of the Six Nations? In the decade from 2010-19 Ireland or Wales won this grand old tournament six times in total, with three wins apiece. Now both teams are under new management and struggling to hit the heights of old.
It may be just the fillip that Scotland need in their quest for a first ever Six Nations title.