Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Autumn Review: Signs of encouragement in Scotland’s pack

ohn Hardie, John Barclay, Zander Fagerson and Richie Gray pictured during Scotland vs Australia
John Hardie, John Barclay, Zander Fagerson and Richie Gray pictured during Scotland vs Australia in the Autumn Test at BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh. © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

Vern Cotter’s final Autumn series as Scotland coach has drawn to a close with two wins and another scrap with the Wallabies that ended in defeat, but there is more than just victories for fans to be content with.

A rousing first half performance in the thumping of Georgia, a depleted pack that stood toe-to-toe with ‘Pooper’ and the much-improved Australia tight five, and more than matched Argentina to clinch a dramatic win.

Yes, the scrum wobbled – badly in the second half at Rugby Park, but there are an abundance of positives to take.

Firstly, look at the emergence of props Allan Dell and Zander Fagerson as genuine Test match players. Before the Australia game questions were asked of Dell’s capability as he was preferred to Gordy Reid at loosehead, and Fagerson’s youth.

By the time Georgia came to town, Dell was the established first choice with Reid – after a hot-headed cameo against the Wallabies – back playing for Glasgow. Alex Allan replaced South Africa-born Dell for the final quarter in Kilmarnock. On paper, Alasdair Dickinson remains the undisputed number 1 when he’s fit and firing, but both Dell and Allan did themselves no harm. The established order could be changing.

On the other side, Fagerson was superb at the set-piece, holding his own with some of the world’s finest scrum operators, while offering himself often in the loose. Gone now are the days when WP Nel must be flogged for a full 80 minutes.

It was a much more difficult Autumn for Moray Low, though. The 32-year-old Exeter Chief struggled (badly) at the scrum, and was sin-binned against Georgia as the scrum retreated. That cost Scotland a try – a score that would have been punished further against better opposition.

A memorable hour against the Georgians from Ross Ford showed there’s life in the 32-year-old Kelso man yet, while Fraser Brown appears to have leap-frogged Stuart McInally in the pecking order but still hasn’t quite put down the display that closes the door on Ford. The Glasgow man was given the nod to start against the Pumas, but Ford’s bulk helped shore up a retreating scrum and he was restored to face Georgia with great results.

Behind them, the Gray brothers were imperious once more – Richie’s quality notably missed in the Argentina game, but Grant Gilchrist performed admirably to cement his spot as the brothers’ back-up from the bench ahead of Tim Swinson. As Vern Cotter’s reign draws to a close, it’s an interesting “what if?” to consider the trajectory things might have taken had Gilchrist been permitted the run at captaincy he was denied by injury. Would Jonny Gray be stuck behind him like Jamie Geroge is behind Dylan Hartley?

It was a fascinating series for the development of the back-row.

Hamish Watson was arguably the stand-out player of the three matches, capping a fine series with a first Scotland try against Georgia. A welcome sight, particularly given John Hardie’s injury against Australia. Almost like for like – certainly in terms of fearlessness – Watson really built on his club form, and deserves to retain the number seven jersey for the forthcoming Six Nations.

The veteran of the unit, John Barclay was similarly outstanding, and has been since his international exile was rightly ended.

Ryan Wilson added some grunt when he was given the nod. There was a fine first cap, too, for Magnus Bradbury against Argentina, where he carried hard and put in some big hits during the opening 50 minutes. He should have had longer, and perhaps retained his place against Georgia, but the need for dynamic defence saw Rob Harley drafted in, and the Glasgow Warrior provided just that as he got the first 55 minutes at Rugby Park.

With the likes of Denton, Hardie, Strauss and Ashe all on the sidelines, the performances of 21-year-old Bradbury and 25-year-old Watson will have delighted Cotter. Watson or Hardie will start at 7 in February but the 6 and 8 shirts are still very much up for grabs.

With a host of front-line names to return in the New Year, a Scotland coach has, for the first time in a long time: options in the pack.

Coming soon: John Anderson reviews the backs

6 Responses

  1. Good to see a growing depth of props

    Loosehead: Dickinson, Sutherland, Dell, Reid, Allan, Grant (Cosgrove at Edinburgh looks decent as well)
    Tighthead: Nel, Zander, Welsh (no idea why he was never called up), Low (even if he is mince) and Murray McCallum looks like a very good prospect
    Bit of maybe useless trivia, Alex Allan has a 100% winning record.

  2. The Georgia game illustrated the paramount importance of the front row to our international success. Fagerson, a world-class prop in the making, and Dell performed admirably in the scrums, and this was the essential platform from which all our superb first-half shape and flow emanated. Another revelation was Ford’s belligerence in the loose. I have never before seen him throw his formidable physique around to such effect!
    Conversely, after our front-row substitutions, Georgia’s much-vaunted pack achieved an overwhelming ascendancy in the scrummage, resulting in several penalties and a pushover try. And we all know what cheap points would be available to our 6N opponents from similar penalties in the set-piece. Additionally, our second-half disjointedness and lack of possession resulted largely from our retreating scrum.
    To be truly formidable on the international stage and to realise our backs’ potential to the full we need to develop triple strength-in-depth in the front row. We have some very promising youngsters to make this feasible.

  3. Fast-forward the “very promising youngsters”! Rigorous diet, rigorous strength and technique training……..and a bit of the Georgian rugby ethos, at least with reference to the front-row!

  4. Overall, I thought our forwards had a collective pass for the AI. Several new faces were brought in (Fagerson, Dell, Bradbury, Allan), and a couple of new-ish ones got a bit more game time (Watson, Harley, Brown). None of them looked out of place, and the longer served players also did well.

    If the key figure is 3 Test-worthy players for each position then we are making progress slowly but surely
    LH – Dickinson, Dell, Allan, Sutherland make one shoo-in, and 3 with potential
    Hooker – Ford, Brown and McInally are all capable
    TH – Nel, Fagerson…….and…….?

    Add in young guys like Cosgrove, McCallum, Darcy Rae and there is stuff in the pipeline, and you also have older heads like Reid, Welch and Ryan Grant (who hopefully will be back in top form now he is back from injury. I think Moray Low has had his chance at the top level though.

    At hooker you have a number of steady pro’s who could push on – MacArthur, Bryce, Malcolm.

    Second row – the Grays were immense, and we missed Richie versus Argentina. Gilchrist and Swinson are good back ups, but then there is a gap. Ben Toolis hasn’t quite progressed as I’d have hoped, and young Cummings at Glasgow looks a prospect, but are not quite Test ready yet.

    Back row is our deepest reserve though – perm any combination of 3 from the following:
    Barclay, Watson, Hardie, Wilson, Harley, Strauss, Denton, Ashe, Bradbury, then add in guys like Fusaro, Ritchie, Cowan, Beattie, du Preez and then youngsters like Lewis Wynne, and Matt Fagerson. It’s a nice selection now, and going forward.

    Perhaps we don’t have an out and out monster like Billy Vunipola or Sean O’Brien, but we have got some impressive combinations of skill sets available.

    I liked the rugby Scotland tried to play in the last month. You could see the difference having quick ball made to Laidlaw, and how he struggled when it dried up against Argentina. Scotland will have to be very streetwise and savvy come the 6N, as Ireland are as adept as the ABs at messing around in rucks, but we matched Hooper and Pocock, so should be willing to take on anybody.

  5. With regard to greater depth at lock, what happened to Andy Cramond? He was highly thought of and got himself a move to Toulon, but I’ve not heard much about him recently.

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