We never like to be miserable about Scottish Rugby here (yeah right) so let’s pick over the positives to be taken from that final game against Fiji.
Because it’s better than doing player ratings…
1) It was an eye-opening clarification on squad depth
At least it wasn’t eye-watering like the Calcutta Cup earlier in the year. Yes it was the end of tour, the end of season, and players were affected by tiredness of one sort the other but on that performance, several players might have played their way out of Gregor Townsend’s long term plans for Scotland. It would be surprising if Henry Pyrgos or Ruaridh Jackson re-appeared in Scotland shirts any time soon, for example.
Ahead of the game we were thinking that the team looked strong despite being shorn of our first choice backline and then some, probably lulled into a false sense of security by the slightly second string performing well in Australia. Maybe guys who hadn’t been great before were suddenly great?
We are also badly in need of some cover for Finn Russell. Weir, Jackson and Horne have all been tried and while (Fiji aside) Horne has played well in some cases he still looks like a second five-eighth, not a first. It’ll be an interesting season ahead for Connor Eastgate (Wasps) and Adam Hastings (Glasgow) to push for increasing game time at pro level, but they are unlikely to be ready any time soon. Might the return of Greig Tonks to the utility fold be an experiment worth undertaking in the Autumn (he started just one game for Irish at 10 last season, a loss to Doncaster)?
While some areas are a bit thin (10,15), on the other hand we don’t need to play John Barclay if he can’t get out of bed – apparently he suffered back spasms on the morning of the game. He’s had a superb season, but this will have been a disappointing and unnecessary end to it. No player will ever want to declare themselves unfit to represent let alone captain their country but perhaps this is one case where Sir Dr James should have stepped in. In the back row there actually was cover, even with Magnus Bradbury sent home early.
With our first XV out we should be challenging any team in world rugby. We’re almost on the way to building a 23. But Six Nations and World Cup winning teams don’t consist of just 23 guys.
Going Up: Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Ali Price, Duncan Taylor, and possibly Greigs Laidlaw & Tonks
Going Down: Henry Pyrgos, Ruaridh Jackson, Tim Swinson, Ryan Wilson, Grant Gilchrist
2) It was still close despite Scotland being so hopeless.
With say Laidlaw and Hogg on the park and JB not playing in pain, it might have been salvageable. Richie Gray is another player who often pops up at the right time to give the team forward motion. That was lacking.
All Scotland needed to do to win this game was to make most (not even all) of their tackles and hold on to the ball, rather than trying to engage Fiji in an entertainment-off. It was quite similar to the Lions first test where suddenly the visitors were throwing it about (and spilling a lot of ball) while the home side kicked their goals and stuck it to them with the basics against general expectation.
That Scotland painfully failed to deal with a game running away from them was a lesson that will hopefully reverberate through the team’s collective memory going forward. A good way to do this would be to make them watch that last scrum then the breakout and Tim Visser’s final run into touch, along with a giant caption that says: “this was not necessary.”
You don’t need to save the game in the 80th minute if you win it in minutes 1-79. That’s a lesson Scotland players should have been learning since Argentina in RWC’07. Hopefully it sinks in within a decade. Still, they missed 30 tackles and still only lost by 5 points.
Fraser Brown stood in at captain and looked like the only one steering the ship in the dying minutes. Making him part of the leadership group could be a great plan.
Here’s a Scotland team for the Autumn:
Hogg, Seymour, Jones, Taylor, Maitland, Russell, Price; Dickinson, Brown, Nel, R Gray, Toolis, Barclay (c), Watson, Strauss
Bench: Dell, Ford, Fagerson, J Gray, Hardie, Laidlaw, Horne, Dunbar
3) The rolling maul still works
Since last year, Scotland’s maul attack and defence have improved massively. It’s been a good tour for the hookers, and each of them finished with a try from the back of a maul. Neither Fraser Brown or Ross Ford jumped clear ahead of the other in the selection stakes with about even game time, but Brown is clearly the man with age on his side. 110 cap hero Ford works increasingly well as a bench impact player, and stacking our bench with experience is not an awful idea.
The only worry – and it’s good one – is that the arrival of Ben Toolis as a lineout operator par excellence has made the choices at lock even trickier. Yes, Toony is a fan of Swinson, but come the autumn don’t be surprised if Toolis has consigned a Gray brother to the bench – perhaps even Jonny – and Swinson shuffled further back.
4) We can stop arguing with the Welsh about the Lions
Unfortunately, this result is all the ammunition required to kill off the armchair skirmishes on social media over whether Scotland should have further representation on the Other tour. Yes it was the 2nd/3rd string but “Scotland lost to Fiji last week” overwrites all “but that was just one game” arguments regarding the Calcutta Cup in defence of our lads and their “winning” mentality.
We have who we have. With Seymour and Laidlaw playing the full 80 today against the Hurricanes, that could be the Lions tour over for the Scots in terms of playing time.
Finn Russell at least hasn’t been tarnished with the same Fijian brush as his colleagues in his absence but although he has his number (#835) for 5 minutes as an HIA replacement he will be unlikely to get any more Lions game time. Is Warren Gatland really going to throw a (so far) notoriously mercurial standoff (although much improved on recent form) into an unfamiliar setup against the Best Team in the World™ with any confidence that he won’t be throwing passes to no-one or fluffing touch kicks? His first touch was a lovely wee half break, but with no one to support the offload and the ball exposed he was turned over; the Hurricanes turned that to a scrum penalty and 3 points.
To beat the All Blacks – as the test XV found out at the weekend – you need to be playing a near perfect game. The public perception of Finn won’t be encouraging; despite his undeniable form on the Scotland tour and the creativity he could bring, is the test environment the place to throw him in? He should have been on tour from the start in order to gain an understanding with the players around him.
However, the experience he gains from training alongside both Farrell and Sexton in terms of game management could be huge in his development as a player. There is, of course, the possibility of a third test bench spot if the series is put to bed as seems likely, and Dan Biggar continues to pick up head knocks. Which would be welcome as Finn will want to face the All Blacks in November.
Gatland may, in the end, be doing us a favour while trying his hardest to stop The Geography 6 from upstaging him.
5) We’re not there yet, and we needed to see it
Thoughts of beating All Blacks, winning Six Nations tournaments and contributing the bulk of the next Lions tour are, unfortunately, still wide of the mark. Many of the armchair warriors referenced in #4 above point to consistent awfulness being the rule rather than the recent upturn in fortunes. Scotland have to make a new rule as a rugby nation, and being great one week and awful the next should not be it.
And perhaps the players needed to see it.
You can turn a corner but you have to keep the foot on the accelerator. You can’t just coast along, chuckling through the national anthems. For all that the haka annoys me, it sure focuses the minds of the players into the right headspace.
Fix the restarts too please. Again.
We’ll need a lot more victories like the one in Australia and far fewer like the one in Fiji in order to be seen as genuinely worth respecting by any other rugby nation other than pre-match interview lip service. Townsend and this group of players may have the makings of a perfect rugby brew, but they are just starting to simmer. It’ll take a few years to get them boiling over.
So thanks for bringing us down to earth, Fiji.