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