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Autumn Review: stepping up the pace in the backs

Finn Russell
Finn Russell - pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

‘Forwards win matches, backs determine by how much’. So goes the saying, and after 10 tries in 3 games, let’s have a look at how the backs got on this autumn.

Ali Price made his Scotland bow against Georgia, and what an impact he had in his 7 minutes, setting up possibly the try of the autumn from a quick tap and go. Lots more to come from the young Warrior. Captain Greig Laidlaw gave us nothing new, with pinpoint kicking, general direction and control. A couple of wobbly moments and when the Argentina game descended into drudgery his pace of service followed, but I think this series proved just how important he is to managing the potential outside him. He can be really delighted with his, and the teams efforts.

With his place under no apparent threat from any of the other Scottish 10s (to the point where Vern doesn’t even bother to pick another in the squad) it would be easy for Finn Russell to slack off. Not so, with some inspired chip kicks, lovely distribution and some unnoticed big defence. We all expect so much of this young lad and at times he forces it a bit, but I would really hate for him to stop trying to make the creative plays.

How incredible is it that Mark Bennett is possibly 3rd choice at 13 after this series if everyone is fit? Huw Jones was outstanding in absolutely everything he did. The Edinburgh born centre scored 2 tries, created the vital equalizer against Argentina and was a rock in defence. My 1st choice for the 6 Nations if fit and available.
Alex Dunbar continues to make his way back to some of the form that had us waxing lyrical about him before his visit from the ‘Knee Fairy’. The perfect foil to our dynamic 13s, he also puts in outstanding work in defence, particularly at the breakdown. A good series but now must kick on at Glasgow. Pete Horne had the unfortunate scenario of being flattened for the Australian winning try, and it was a fairly quiet autumn from the bench, perhaps having come into the squad after an injury lay off. Still a great squad player and potentially next in line at 10. Mark Bennett, as mentioned above, got 60 minutes against Georgia and was solid, but as yet nowhere near his best. Another stint at Glasgow, recapturing form, is required.

Maitland continued his good Saracens form, scoring against both Argentina and Georgia. He had a couple of other opportunities, but it was a decent series in terms of finishing from Sean. He spent a good bit of time at first receiver against Georgia as well which was a turn up; he’s at his best when he goes looking for work. Tommy Seymour, meanwhile, is clearly our first choice wing. His defence went missing after 3 minutes against Georgia but he immediately made up for his error by dotting down at the other end. He works brilliantly with Finn Russell and if he continues to score tries he will definitely be in for Lions consideration.

Tim Visser is having a belter of a season down south, but the big man was up to his old defensive habits in the blue of Scotland. He really doesn’t seem to be able to translate his club form to international level, which is surprising given how good a start he had when he first qualified. Falling down the pecking order. Rory Hughes looks like a decent prospect, and he will have benefitted from a small taste of international rugby. Showed a cool head to fix his man for the Ali Price/Stuart Hogg try. A big lad as well, he should get plenty of game time for Glasgow before the 6 Nations. Damien Hoyland should also come into consideration depending how Edinburgh go.

Fullback Stuart Hogg just seems to get people off their seats every time he gets the ball. The full back was electric against Georgia, having been well attended to by Australia and Argentina. If we get him the ball in space we will cause any team on the planet problems as he demands so much attention in defence that mistakes are made or gaps open up for others, and he is a far more generous rugby player now at the ripe old age of 24. Two excellent tries, plus a peach of an assist for Seymour against Georgia. The only issue was his turnstile defence for the Argentina try, although better positioning from Maitland would have helped. If Gatland doesn’t hand him the 15 Lions shirt, then he has lost the plot.

Overall – a solid 8 out of 10 for the starters, plenty of options at centre and the halfbacks are really forming a solid partnership. Hogg, Seymour and AN other will make up the back three for Ireland in February; could this be where Duncan Taylor regains his place? There was still no game time for Henry Pyrgos, which has me thinking Vern has seen enough and for some reason doesn’t trust him to take over from Greig.

Predicted 6 Nations backs v Ireland (Assuming Fitness)

9 – Laidlaw
10 – Russell
11 – Seymour
12 – Dunbar
13 – Jones
14 – Taylor
15 – Hogg
21 – Price
22 – Horne
23 – Bennett

18 Responses

  1. We need Ali Price to get a shot at starting in the 6N, Laidlaw is just too slow at the base of rucks!

  2. I think this is a pretty accurate article, certainly the proposed back division is close to the same one I would select.

    I do suspect, however, that the 14 & 23 jerseys will be a shoot-out between Big Duncan and Maitland, I find it hard to make an argument that Bennett should be on the bench ahead of Maitland with his ability to cover the back three whilst Horne & Taylor also covering 12 & 13.

    Overall a wonderful position to be in though, considering only recently the extreme paucity we had in the back division.

    If Hoyland, Hughes, Kinghorn, Hastings continue to develop we will be sitting pretty.

    Whatever happened to Farndale incidentally? Still on the 7s circuit?

  3. Yes Laidlaw has a poor pass, but in terms of game management I don’t think we have a better option, although Price has the benefit of being lightning quick and willing to have a dart, something that Laidlaw seems to have dropped from his game.

    Russell is in great form but I feel he would get even better with a bit of competition. It’s a bit early for Hastings and Kinghorn, but I feel it is time to maybe assign Horne as backup to Russell thanks to our increased depth at centre.

    Seymour is our number 1 wing by a country mile, Maitland has played OK, but I always get the impression he is playing within himself. Hughes showed up well, I would have liked Hoyland to get some game time as I rate him highly, Visser’s defensive frailties have, IMO, put him near the back of the pecking order. Again, thanks to the depth in the centres, it may be worth trying Taylor on the wing – he has after all played there for Sarries.

    Our depth at centre has already been highlighted and it is a nice position to be in. Dunbar is getting back to his best although his pace doesn’t seem to be quite back to pre-injury levels – maybe it never will, Jones is an awesome find and has that “x-factor” in the same way that Hogg does, Taylor was in terrific form and was arguably one of our best players in last year’s 6N, Bennett is still not quite back to form yet and I feel for him a bit, but to have someone of his quality at 3rd choice is helpful.

    The main area of concern for me is fullback. Hogg is outrageously talented, and aside from the real possibility of Gatland’s bias is almost certainly going to be 15 for the Lions, but if he in injured who do we have as back up? As said before Kinghorn is too young although he is very good. Maybe Maitland? He has said it is his preferred position and maybe he would be a bit more dynamic at fullback.

  4. Just a thought looking at this and considering the shortage of stand-off’s / great cover we have at centre – stand-off was Matt Scott’s original position when signed on a development contract by Edinburgh, the same season he went on to be capped I think. Although the SRU don’t have any say over where Gloucester play him, he could have been / still could be a back-up to Russell if he got some decent game time there……….don’t know how that could be arranged though

      1. Matt Scott won’t be playing at 10 for Glos.

        Speaking As an exile and Gloucester fan, he’s been outstanding at 13 in a poor team this year, but he’s not even close to consideration for playing at 10.

    1. Matt Scott, Christ was so busy getting excited about Jones, Taylor, Dunbar, Horne and Bennett that I forgot about him!

      How far we have came in the last couple of years from selecting Sean Lamont (honest basher though he is) at centre.

  5. As with the forwards I think we have to be pretty pleased with the intent and manner of play from Scotlands backs the last few weeks. The modus operandi was to be creative, test the defence and take opportunities when they arose.

    It is a concern that we are over reliant on Laidlaw and Russell. There are players in the background – Pyrgos, SHC, Weir, Jackson but have they consistently performed when given the chance? I hope they all come again, pushing the incumbents and giving VC/GT options at least. And with Price now added to the list it may be that we are getting somewhere.

    As it was Laidlaw was steady and controlled the games well. The one time he looked ponderous was when the forwards were delivering slow ball against Argentina. What 9 wouldn’t give slow ball when they aren’t getting it themselves?

    Russell is developing nicely, adding more options to his game, and regularly threatening the gain line whether it’s making breaks, through the hands, or those deft wee chips he seems to have such a knack for.

    Centre is like the back row – an abundance of treasures after several years of having players who would run through a brick wall for the Jersey, but perhaps weren’t as gifted as the current crop. With guys like Dunbar, Horne, Scott, Bennett, Jones, and Taylor we can actual afford to suffer an injury or loss of form and not be terrified of what that might mean in terms of selection for the next game. Jones was the obvious stand out.

    Wing – good to see Rory Hughes get some time in dark blue. Along with Hoyland he is one for the future. Seymour is way out in front as our best, with Maitland and Visser not too far behind.

    One thing I don’t get is the comment regarding Visser being back to his “old defensive habits”. Can anyone tell me how many tackles he made/missed in the game against Australia where it was his man to tackle? He could have done better on the Hodge score as last man, but by that point Jones, Maitland and Hogg had all missed opportunities to stop the move. As for the Kuridrani try, Jones again misses after Hornes’ initial mistake. Visser has to get back and get round Israel Folua if he is to get under Kuridrani as some think he should have done – I just can’t see what he is supposed to do better in that situation.

    Full back – Hogg is becoming a much more mature, rounded player, and this is adding to his ” x-factor”. Unfortunately the cupboard is even more bare at 15 than at half back. Without Hogg where do you look? Maitland? Kinghorn seems the real deal – and isn’t he the same age know as when Hogg first broke through? It’s the one position I would really have liked to have seen someone else blooded during these games so that if Hogg is out we have contenders for the Jersey with some experience of Test rugby.

  6. If I was being critical of the backs I would make the following points:
    1) not enough length on clearing kicks. All the possible backs should be practicing booting the leather off the ball till we find someone who can get us out of danger better (or Hogg needs to sort his hamstrings!) I’d say this cost us the Aus game.

    2) it seems odd to be saying it after what we’ve seen in recent years but the backs are almost too adventurous. I thought sometimes they forced things a wee bit, tried to run from deep when they possibly needed to go for the safe option of hoofing it and got isolated.

    But this is really nit picking from what was good, exciting, attacking play.

    1. 1) Agree completely that poor exit/clearance execution in the second half cost us the Wallabies match.
      2) Don’t agree about being over-adventurous in attack. We now have a world class set of backs and a world class choice of loose forwards ready to pick up and profit from the pieces when things don’t go completely to attack plan. It’s all about attack really.

      1. Totally agree. For years we have had no attack to talk about. Now we have one of the best in the 6N, why on earth would we try to rein it in a bit. We will not beat England, Ireland or France, and probably not the other two either in an arm wrestle. Hard and fast as we can in the loose is my preference. I thought Cotter had it spot on in the first half against Georgia, yes the forwards hit it up, but I think it was identified weaknesses. There will be far fewer of these in the 6N, but they will exist.

        Suspect we will see ‘horses for courses’ back rows in the 6N. If fit, front five selects themselves, with a debate about hooker, and likewise the backs. If fit, for me Taylor gets second wing spot, assuming Jones is back in harness.

        Plenty to look forward to.

    2. I think that the shorter kicks and the running from deep was a case of “horses for courses” James.

      I think that it had been identified early on that our backs were going to get over the gainline quite often and with the true surface at Rugby Park it was a chance for the backline to cut loose a bit. I don’t think we’d have done the same against Japan for example.

      I also think that we kicked a bit shorter on purpose – a kick inside Georgia’s 22 would likely have led to a lineout and I think we were trying to keep the ball alive as much as possible.

  7. I think all in all Vern Cotter has made an absolute mess of this Scotland squad, now the worst coach that Glasgow has ever had in Gregor Townsend is coming to take over! Why didn’t Allan Solomons get the job?

  8. I can see a decent 6Nations coming, does anyone else expect Warren Gatland to leave Wales and go to NZ after the 6N? I expect that his contract will be terminated directly after the lions tour, this will mean that there will be space for Scotland to fill the void that Wales have left (as they will be inconsistent)

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