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Scotland’s Summer Tour – 5 Things We Learnt

Matt Scott - photo © Alastair Ross

1) Scotland may just have uncovered a lasting centre partnership.

After almost a decade of stuttering, misfiring and uninspiring combinations in the 12 and 13 jerseys, it looks like the boys in blue may finally have got it right.  Since the championship-winning days of John Leslie and Alan Tait, Scotland’s midfield has been blighted by a startling lack of talent and offensive threat.  For every Tait or Leslie, there have three or four Marcus Di Rollos, Andrew Hendersons and Ben Hinshelwoods.  In Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar however, the Scots have a nice blend of rugby intelligence, attacking prowess, and competent defence; with Scott arguably the standout performer of the tour.  Both are still young and largely inexperienced at international level, but the signs are promising.  With the likes of Nick De Luca, Ben Cairns and Graeme Morrison falling by the wayside (perhaps serving as a warning not to expect too much too soon from the youngsters), and Sean Lamont far more suited to a slot on the wing, these two look set to be given the opportunity to form an exciting duo at the heart of Scotland’s backline.
2) The “gallant losers” tag has yet to be shed

For an hour in Nelspruit, the injury-hit visitors had the Springboks worried.  They led by 11 points, were hungry at the breakdown, and outscored their hosts by two tries to none.  Once again though, early promise failed to deliver an end result.  Second row Jim Hamilton was given an admittedly dubious yellow card, off the Scots’ van came the wheels, and on to the wall went the writing.  That this performance, a thirteen-point defeat, was undoubtedly the most impressive of the three matches epitomises perfectly the problem the nation has faced for the past decade and beyond.  So often the Scots have offered much fight, determination and promise, and so often the all-important victory has evaded them.  Who can forget the dramatic collapse suffered by a Scotland team that should have recorded a comfortable success in Cardiff three years ago?  That the tour ended with a win will be a morale-boost for the squad, but Scott Johnson must seek to instil in his charges the ruthless killer instinct required to compete with the best.

3) When inconsistency reigns, momentum stalls

Focusing on the team performances turned in against Samoa, South Africa and Italy respectively, Scotland failed to build or subsequently carry any momentum from one fixture to the next.  Against the Samoans, an altogether lethargic ethos added to a disappointing display, and a result that saw the country drop in the IRB World Rankings.  Perhaps the showing itself was partly excusable taking into account rustiness, missing players and a dramatic change in climate; nonetheless, a glaringly poor team attitude was not.  Fast-forward a week to that barnstorming opening hour in Nelspruit, with a squad depleted further by injuries, and facing far stiffer opposition.  The contrast with the previous match was stark, the inspired performance almost unrecognisable.  In the final test, against the Italians in Pretoria, the Scots were once more below par – poor backline defence from Tommy Seymour and a scrum that was light on experience costing them two tries.  Though a last-gasp converted score gave them a narrow victory, the squad and coaching staff openly acknowledged that the display was less than impressive.  This all-round inconsistency is another frustrating tendency that has so dogged and hampered the progress of the national team for many a year.  With every encouraging performance or heroic victory seems to follow several lacklustre and uninspiring defeats.  Johnson has claimed he “does not want to be a team that has peaks and troughs”, but on a tour that brought to the fore several of Scottish rugby’s most deeply-ingrained faults, it appears there is much work still to be done.

4) The squad depth is encouraging

With an end-of-season tour featuring three of the most physical opponents in world rugby, there were always likely to be injuries.  No-one, however, could have foreseen quite the extent of the Scots’ medical problems.  With Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Richie Gray and latterly Ryan Grant on Lions duty, the squad were already shorn of some of their big-name players.  Subsequently, the touring party lost eight members, seven to injury.  That Fraser Brown, a Glasgow Warriors hooker who had yet to start a professional game of rugby was wearing the number 2 jersey for the final match against the Italians shows just how short on numbers the Scots ultimately were.  It was heartening to witness, however, the impressive performances put in by a number of the fringe players enjoying a run-out in the dark blue.  Dunbar’s Glasgow teammate Tim Swinson fronted up superbly against the Springboks alongside full-back Peter Murchie.  Prop Alasdair Dickinson was characteristically busy in the loose having not appeared for his country in two years, and there were also signs that David Denton, who burst onto the international scene in 2012, is beginning to get back to his best form having endured a torrid season at Edinburgh.  With the emergence of such provincial players to the test match arena, and those currently on the treatment table having a long pre-season to recover, this year’s autumn tests look set to prove crucial in determining which names will be on Johnson’s team sheet in the 2014 Six Nations.

5) Try-scoring is improving

Perhaps owing to the more languid style of rugby played outwith the Six Nations, the Scots backline is now one that looks seriously capable of scoring tries.  Although the fly-half position remains a problem, the new-found Scott-Dunbar centre pairing looks dangerous, and Tim Visser can be a devastating finisher when given even a little space.  With real quality in the back three in the form of Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg, more scoring opportunities should arise, and crucially, be capitalised on.  This is a backline in the midst of a transformation from the turgid, more physical days of Frank Hadden and Andy Robinson where ball players were at a premium, to a direct and incisive group of youngsters.  Time will tell whether they are capable of turning potential into results.

18 Responses

  1. Jamie, Agree with all those points. I could only add:
    1. While Scott and Dunbar worked well most of the time on the summer tour, I couldn’t help feel that both players would be ideally suited to the 12 jersey, albeit with slightly differing styles. With the addition of Mark Bennett to that pair, I think we may have a genuine test-class outside centre on our hands
    2. While nobody wishes to retain the ‘gallant loser’ tag, the performance against South Africa was comfortably the most impressive. That being said, it is equally important to come away from games such as the one against Italy with our noses just ahead despite having not delivered the desired performance
    3. Momentum in international rugby seems especially important, given that the players comes together much less frequently than normal – the way that the 6Ns and RWC are structured, it is vital that we learn how to put together a string of quality performances, rather than aspiring to the usual highs and lows
    4. Perhaps the most important thing to come from the summer was the baptism of a number of players in international rugby, while more established stars were either away with the Lions or injured. We’re almost getting to the point where a third pro-team could work, it’s just a shame that the finances aren’t quite there to do it yet
    5. Hopefully the try-scoring corner has been well and truly turned, but I’d like to see us reverse the recent trend of allowing the oppo to play with the ball and retain possession for large chunks of the game – I’d like to see the best bits of the Robinson era blended with what Johnson has brought, just in time to tee up Cotter’s arrival!

  2. I think it is difficult to expect consistency in performance without consistency in selection. Whilst this tour was clearly for development, and many choices were down to injuries, I’d like to see a settled lineup for the AIs and 6N as much as possible (unless players need to be dropped).

    For the most part, we know who the leading players are but there are a few key positions that need nailing down – most notably Fly-Half, but also the backrow mix is a bit murky at the moment.

    Regarding young Bennett – I’m not sure he’s ready for international rugby yet so he’s likely to be a fringe player at the next world cup if the Scott-Dunbar partnership continues to shine.

    I think too often promising young Scots are given the Great White Hope tag. Bennett looks the real deal but he still needs to be promoted only when he’s ready. He’s till just got a handful of appearances as a pro to his name after all.

    1. I think Bennett will get plenty of time on the pitch for Glasgow this season – Dunbar will likely move across to 12, and Bennett is the next cab in the rank at 13.

      While he’s only played a few games for Glasgow, he has scored a number of important tries for the club in those games. If his performances continue on that trend, I’d like to see him make the bench for the first AI game versus Japan.

    2. I agree, I think we’ll see the lad in a Scotland shirt before the next world cup. Like young Hoggy, he’s one of those guys who looks pretty un-phased by anything regardless of the “level” he’s playing at.

  3. As for the main article, it’s a very good read, Jamie. I agree with all your points, and would add a few minor ones

    – Swinson’s performance vs Sa and Italy suggests that he should be partnering Gray, with Hamilton on the bench. Big Jim is too much of a card magnet, Gilchrist is too soft at the moment and Kellock doesn’t have the presence in the loose or the scrum. The only worry with a Swinson/Gray combo would be the lineout, as I’m not sure either of them have ever run one for club or country.

    – Strokosch was superb in all three games. If he keeps playing in that manner, it’ll be hard for Brown to get back in the team at 6.

    – Visser needs a kick up the backside. I hope Solomons can give him one.

    – Horne’s injury is a real kick in the balls. He’s the kind of versatile, ball-playing back that we really need. He adds something different when compared to Scott, Dunbar and the flyhalves. I hope he comes back strongly.

    – When all our top three flyhalves (Weir, Rhubarb and Heathcote) are fit, it’ll be tough to choose between them. Heathcote was solid and made the right choices, Jackson looks to have discovered a nice vein of form, and Weir is the most dependable of the lot with ball in hand. He’s also developing more of a running game. After so much famine at 10, we seem to have a feast.

    1. Totally agree on Swinson but would add that Ryder isnt a kick in the a55 away from being in the mix too. In fact there were periods last year that Ryder was the stand out for Glasgow.

      I know it didnt go down too well in the summer, but the Hogg 10 and Maitland 15 experiment has legs in it for me.

      Jackson is getting to the point where he’s had enough chances to establish himself and had failed. Heathcote has shown nothing startling, but if he is first choice 10 at Bath this year that may change.

      I really like Weir, but can he stay fit?

      Moving Hogg to 10 and Maitland to 15 gets the two most exciting players since Tait (??) more exposure to the ball.

      A seetled Scott/DUnbar centre duo over the next 6 months should be planned with Horne and Bennet waiting in the wings.

      Front row worries me. Grant and Welsh/Cross (?) first choice?? How interetsed/how long can Euan Murray keep playing? Low, Dickinson, Reid are not up to it. Who’s next in line??

      WP Nel in 12 months (or is it more??)

    2. Andy,

      Gordon Reid has come on hugely this season. I wouldn’t dismiss him so lightly. It looks like Welsh is now seen as a tight head prop, which I’m sure he will excel at, so I’d hav no problems with Reid being considered a back up loose head to Grant for Scotland. Grant Shiells looks promising at Newcastle too.

  4. Bennett will get plenty of game time I think. He’s also listed on the full squad roster and not as an EDO.

  5. There is no doubt Bennett will get game-time this season. There is reasonable doubt whether he’ll have enough pro-experience to warrant playing in the AIs (even if it is against Japan) after 2 months of his first full season as a pro, or in the 6N.

    I’m not saying that he won’t be ready, just that assuming he will be because he looked good as a sub at the tail-end of last season and always shines for the u-20’s is a little premature.

    Everyone was delighted to see him start with Horne in the centres against Llanelli in a strong attacking line-up. Glasgow promptly got battered 29-6 and lost the chance of a home play-off.

    All I’m saying is everyone knows he has huge potential and he should be allowed to develop and fulfill it in his own time. Everyone is busy shoehorning him into their 2015 world cup team, then working backwards saying he has to appear in these AIs/6Ns etc (people even wanted him to tour SA in June). We have two good centres and a promising partnership. Bennett has to force his way up the ranks through performances not potential.

  6. Agreed. Bennett is definitely one to look out for. AI’s might be too soon but if he’s good enough he’s old enough. Nice to have a positive chat about Scotland Rugby :)

  7. Positives

    1. I definitely like Scott and Dunbar in centres but think Bennett wil make the 13 jersey his own this season. By AI’s I would like to think he will at least be coming off the bench – for me he runs the best lines I have seen from a Scottish centre since Alan Tait.

    2. Front row – I think Grant and Welsh will be an excellent front row pairing and suppose Welsh can cover LHP if needed too. This season is a big one for Reid – needs to take the next step up. Cross, Murray, Cusack mean plenty THP cover. Suppose Dickinson can be considered for LHP too so the cupboard hardly bare.

    Concerns

    1. Back row balance – We have plenty of excellent back row players I just don’t think we have found a combination of players at 6, 7 and 8 (for me true since we had White, Hogg and Taylor in back row) which is more than the sum of its parts. Genuinely not sure who best 3 would be on any given day.

    2. Still think we need an inspirational leader on the field. Kellock can do it at club level but is not top class enough for international level. Laidlaw and Brown both decent but just not a Hastings or white type leader. Hope one of them appears soon…

    1. Don’t think that is the right question currently with the revised scrums engagement and other laws finally being adhered to.

      Think the question should be can either of them hook worth a damn?

  8. On last season’s form, it’s MacArthur by a country mile. But, he’s injured at the moment, so I hope he can return with a bang before the AIs. Ford needs to sort his form out, he’s just not playing to his potential for whatever reason.

    1. Just noticed that MacArthur has been named in the Glasgow side to play Quins tomorrow. Happy to see him back. It’s a young Weedge side versus a very strong Quins one.

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