Time up for Toony? Or time to toughen up?

By Ruaraidh Britton

Well that was a weird squad reveal if you ask me.

No more Pete Horne, Ryan Wilson or the retired John Barclay, Greig Laidlaw and Tommy Seymour, but instead hello to Ratu Tagive and Alex Craig?

Times really are a-changing.

Apart from a smaller selection of the usual suspects and some big-name returns, the mixed signals from Gregor’s 38 can appear blinding yet transformative all at the same time. It begs the question as to whether lessons have been learnt from Japan and we’re about to see a new look Scotland, or whether we’re in for another run of dismal results and disappointment?

Whichever one of those it is, this has to be a big Six Nations for Scotland, and by that I mean: seriously big.

The disappointment we all felt as the full-time whistle sounded in Yokohama was well and truly crushing; we’ve experienced lows but this was our lowest low. A team who a year ago we were expected to walk over, had just absolutely torn the heart out of the Scots and smeared it into the turf with one of the most inspiring performances ever seen. If anything they’ll probably make a film out of this one, to sequel the one of their trip to the English seaside.

Something drastic needed to change, and the way we were overpowered by first the Irish then the Japanese was the stark reminder that when in attack we can be on our own level, but in defence we can also be on our own level – at the other end of the scale.

We needed to front up and bulk up, and adapt the way we play.

That realisation has come in the form of some new faces: the brute Alex Craig from Gloucester, Glasgow’s fierce Tom Gordon to add to the collection of new back rowers, and Edinburgh’s duo of Nick Haining and Luke Crosbie. They’ll be well aware of the challenge they face, especially since our first two games include Ireland and England, but their form suggests they already know the challenge ahead.

In turn, come the shock omissions of Sam Skinner and Blade Thompson. The Exeter and Scarlets pair had been electric for Scotland last season, and despite injuries being cited as the reason and lack of game time, their versatility and dominating strength in the pack will be sorely missed.

Strength in defence doesn’t just come in the forwards however, and it’s the backs who need to stand strong against the northern hemisphere’s elites. Matt Scott and Huw Jones have been rewarded for their return to form, with Edinburgh’s Mark Bennett narrowly missing out. Chris Harris retains his place following a move south from Newcastle to Gloucester, and the exciting potential of Kyle Steyn and Ratu Tagive has seen them earn their first call ups to the Six Nations squad.

Couple these additions and the electric Rory Hutchinson’s return with the regulars like Ali Price, Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, and you can be fairly confident of seeing a good few tries throughout the tournament.

In Greig Laidlaw’s absence, George Horne looks set to step up and fill the void – at least until Price’s standout turn against Sale at the weekend – with Price and Henry Pyrgos on standby. It’s a huge set of boots to fill given the legacy Laidlaw leaves behind, but every time the wee Horne sets foot on the grass, he just looks like scoring. We’re safe in that department; famous last words.

The biggest call of the lot from Townsend was the decision to hand the captains armband to our nation’s veteran Stuart Hogg. For me, this is a fine decision in terms of leadership and experience, but when he needed to step up in his sole previous run with the armband against the US, the men around him failed, tarnishing his record.

I have no doubts he’ll be a fantastic leader, but it can easily be understood why there may be cause for concern. Stuart McInally faltered when it was his turn, and quite frankly I’m amazed it wasn’t one of (the now retired) Laidlaw or Barclay to lead the men through the storm in Japan. McInally’s leadership qualities weren’t as watertight as we first hoped, and now Hogg takes the reigns.

It’s weird to see a full back take control; the only other to do it regularly at test level is Russian captain Vasily Artemyev, and despite how out of the mix they can be given their on-field position, I have no doubt Hogg will crack the whip and have a very good view from his usual position.

To predict a starting XV for the Ireland clash, I’m going to suggest the following team, but I can easily see this blowing up in my face, because the predicted squad I had in mind came out far different to the one we have now. But here’s how I imagine us to line up against Andy Farrell’s Ireland:

Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham, Huw Jones, Matt Scott, Sean Maitland, Finn Russell, George Horne; Allan Dell, Stuart McInally, WP Nel, Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Magnus Bradbury.

It’s a bold prediction, but you’ve got to meet fire with fire, and this is the best team I believe we can make from our squad that could challenge the World Cup quarter finalists and put up more of a fight than the drubbing that was our pool clash.

Despite the lack of game time for the likes of Allan Dell, or the inconsistency of Finn Russell, or the questionable form of Huw Jones, when they get going they can really do the jersey proud, and all three have a lot to prove. The new look back-row will also want to make a statement given they’ll most likely have Peter O’Mahony, Josh Van Der Flier and CJ Stander to handle for 80 minutes. The back three of Sean Maitland, Darcy Graham and Hogg will also be well and truly up for this given their recent form and Hogg’s desire to succeed as captain.

Away form has to improve, and a big win in Dublin would be the perfect way to start the tournament, especially since we’ve been on a dismal run in the Irish capital in recent times.

The performances haven’t been as horrific as in Japan, but the frequent near-misses have been eye-watering, and if we lose here, then that’ll set the tone for the tournament.

There was hype last year after bagging a bonus-point win over Italy early on, so building momentum for our toughest Calcutta Cup game to date is key – even if Billy Vunipola has a broken arm.

Get out of Ireland injury-free, and we might stand a chance of going back to back in the opening two rounds for the first time in Six Nations history. That said, it’s not just a case of doing so to stand a chance of winning the tournament, but to gain Townsend any hope of the fans trusting he can be the man for the job.

His first Six Nations saw three wins and two losses, and then his second worsened with only one win, one draw, and three losses. Then the World Cup happened. The trust is diminishing. With a new look coaching team including ex-Ospreys boss Steve Tandy there is clear potential. Of course, 90% of the work is how the players perform, and we’ve seen on several occasions with Toony that it can work, like the Calcutta comeback and the dominating showing against Russia.

But this is the real test now, and to see Scotland’s golden generation slip away would be fatal to the growth of rugby in Scotland. The spike in interest in the game from Japan has been colossal and they haven’t even got a trophy to show for it.

It’s now or never for Townsend; no pressure.

48 comments on “Time up for Toony? Or time to toughen up?

  1. Rj on

    Your certainly a glass half full man! Your side probably not a million miles away though I’d say. Think Brown will certainly start ahead of McInally given the latter has had little game time and question marks over his form. Still think he will go with Johnson at 12 but think Scott May usurp him by the end of the campaign. Perhaps a little fanciful to suggest blade Thomson was “electric” in his handful of appearances, he was distinctly average. Would not say Tagive is is an “Exciting talent” either at the age of 29 and has been unable to break into a poor warriors back 3.

  2. FF on

    It’s a hugely daunting start to the 6N and realistically a win is a big ask. We need our pack to front up in a way we haven’t seen for a long time, and our backs to be clinical when opportunities are presented, also in a way we haven’t seen in a long time.

    I think the team has plenty of talent but I am a bit doubtful that Tandy will have had time to fix the defence. It’s a shame skinner is injured as I think he adds some backbone to the front five.

    I’d start Fagerson and Brown. Not convinced by the back row – you’ve selected our three bests available back row players but not sure if it’ll work as a unit against Ireland where we might need more heft.

    • Scrummo on

      I’d start Sutherland and Zander at loosehead and tighthead respectively. Both are bigger than the other options and have more bastard in them. Even with the injury lay off there isn’t a great disparity between Sutherland and Dell’s gsmetime this season and the elder Fagerson is bang on form.

      I’d also make a big call and start Crosbie at 6 with Ritchie at 7 and Bradbury at 8, all will ‘front up’ and match the Irish when it comes to the gritty physical stuff. Watson is an absolutely outstanding impact sub and a game changer in the last 20.

    • Neil on

      I would also start Fagerson & Brown, Possibly Kinghorn for one of the wings as i think we need another big line breaker in that backline

      Wouldn’t be unhappy if that was the starting 15 however, it would be most likely alot better than what Toony will pick.

  3. Not rocket science on

    What inconsistency of Finn Russell prob one of the most consistent performers for club and country for the last two years; Huw Jones is coming back into form so not so much questionable as finally getting a chance; would rather see Sutherland.

    • TeamCam on

      That line caused me to raise an eyebrow, too. It’s bad enough that the other home nations propagate this myth; we shouldn’t be helping them do so.

    • Alanyst on

      I guess by the style he plays it can seem “inconsistent” to those who would prefer no risks were taken.

      Form for Racing has been superb from what I’ve seen, and very consistent in putting Vatakawa and Thomas in.

      • DJB on

        Yes, I’ve watching a few Racing games in the last few weeks and he’s been excellent. His consistency has improved and he now rarely makes errors. His ability to vary the attack style is just unparalleled by any other 10 at the moment.

  4. Pete on

    Broadly in agreement and think as you say he will start with Nel at tighthead. In my book Fagerson still gives away too many penalties at scrum time and away from home this is a real concern – especially given the loosehead side isnt our strongest position either. Think he will start Johnson hopefully with Jones. I would have said Hutchinson but not sure if it’s just me but when watching recently been slightly concerned by his defence. Close call between Kinghorn & Maitland given the latter will be with Saracens for their game on Sunday. Backrow is a guessing game and would have said Bradbury at 8 but didnt think he had his best game against Bordeaux & Cockerill usually goes with Mata or Haining at 8.

    • sceptic 9 on

      Hutchieson has been playing at 12, rather then 13 where he starred last season. Different position to defend in, more heavy traffic.
      I don’t think he is as effective there – he looks more a Conrad Smith ball playing 13 than a Peter Horne 2nd 5 -eigth

  5. sceptic 9 on

    On form breakdown Brown miles ahead of McInally and much more aggressive at the breakdown.
    On form Nel is behind me, never mind Fagerson and Berghan! He’s done

    Thomson is injured, so as well not to make up stuff about him not being injured. He can join the squad later if his head knock allows. Ditto Skinner if he gets a couple of games under his belt – maybe we learned something from Japan about not taking players who hadn’t really played in ages

    Oh, and in what world were we ever expected to wipe the floor with Japan, in Japan?

  6. Virverax on

    There are obvious selction conundrums that have been well covered above. Weaknesses at LH and No 8 and the overall inexperience cap wise of this young squad. So on paper it should be a reasonably comfortable win for the Irish playing at home. I won’t or would not be unhappy with a loss at all unless such a loss is characterised by pi*s poor defence, tactical naivety and lack of fighting spirit.

    In my opinion its Toonie coming close to his last remaining chance to prove that he can , select, train and motivate potentially one of the best groups of players we’ve ever had to go out and actually perform to their full potential, both collectively and individually. And if the game plan on the day is not working for the group of players to react on the pitch and make changes-can the senior players orchestrate this?

    My innate Scottish optimism (which took a near terminal blow after our exit from RWC 19) is starting to make itself felt again. Balanced against that is my worry that Toonie has learnt nothing from the RWC 19 experience and this young squad go out and get their confidence damaged beyond repair. There is a lot wighing on his shoulders and he needs to deliver.

    • TeamCam on

      His interview with The Scotsman is quite refreshing. I think he can get it right; it seems to me as though we’re really close to something special…

  7. Johnny b on

    In the RWC Toonie picked a bunch of stalwarts on the long term injury return having chopped and changed lineups for the warm ups.
    Players like Barclay and especially Taylor.
    This time around he’s picked players who’ve been playing regularly and others like Huw Jones who’s always been a better test player than a club player. There’s more continuity.
    It’s a better approach.

    My expectations are low.
    Above all I want to see the team play to its potential and I want to see continuity in selection and gameplan.
    They were nowhere near that in Japan and Toonie tinkered with the side in the run up, dropping his regular centres completely out of the squad on the eve of the tournament.
    If they play to potential and lose then that’s too bad, but I think that at or close to potential they’re good enough to be competitive and win some games.

  8. Fraser on

    Bit too much hyperbole and exaggeration in this article for me – Skinner and Thomson aren’t “shock omissions”, they are injured (or in Skinners case hasn’t even played 1 game after a long injury period), Russell really isn’t inconsistent over the last couple of years and I would also argue that only the Ireland game at the World Cup was very poor – Japan played exceptionally well against us rather than us being awful.

    I don’t necessarily think we need to have a huge 6 Nations in terms of just winning games either. We need to show considerable improvement in key areas – particularly defensive structure – and also some consistency.

    Anyway, that aside I don’t think the 15 selected there is particularly bold – it’s more or less what you would expect. There are 4 or 5 positions it is 50/50 but could go either way.

    I suspect Townsend will start Price more than Horne. He seems to like Price more and Horne is extremely dangerous in the last 20 minutes. I personally would go with Horne though.

    I agree with the others that Brown is ahead of McInally by a fair margin at the moment.

    Props I think people are over critical of Nel but could go either way and may depend on the hooker as front row units that play together regularly make a big difference.

    I would get Hutch in at 12 – he has the most potential for the future so let’s get him on the pitch now – but any combination of the centres (with the possible exception of Harris) are looking good.

    Other than that I agree with the starting 15.

    • TeamCam on

      And now it’s my turn to agree with everything you’ve said. Though I wouldn’t be averse to Harris in the 23 if circumstances or strategy dictated.

      • Fraser on

        I have heard good things about him this season, but haven’t really seen him play and he played fairly well in the World Cup so I wouldn’t be screaming if he got picked – still don’t think he is more than an average international, but maybe I will be proved wrong.

  9. Rj on

    Few comments about gameplan….what would everyone’s gameplan be? It’s been mentioned above but we need to see a considerable improvement in the defensive systems and mindset in this 6N. We need more “over my dead body” type defending imbedded in better overall structures. That said it’s harsh to expect Tandy to have sorted this overnight, would be nice to see improvement as the tournament goes on though and he has more time with the players. Not sure of the exact stat but think we are conceding approximately 3 tries a game under GT which is realistically far too many to be a serious threat to Ireland, England and Wales. So long as we don’t hear any of the “fastest rugby in the world” chat during the build up that will be a decent start!!

    • Big Al on

      I think they might return to more of what Vern was doing towards the end of his time with Scotland. That is faster line speed in defense and more aggressive rucking / clear-out to create faster ball or more turn0ver ball. Probably end up playing 3 number sevens (Brown, Watson, Ritchie) to facilitate that. Don’t think we’ll see anything more sophisticated from the defense until the summer.

      • Big Al on

        Just to add to that. I think the centres this time might be picked primarily on defense and familiarity as they are all good in attack. We’ve been humiliated before by the opposition running through the gap between 12 and 13. Remember 11th March 2017 at Twickenham when Dunbar and Jones left the door open for Joseph.

    • Fraser on

      Stop kicking away all our possession – it has absolutely killed us the last couple of years.

      Clever/tactical kicking is fine, but constant poor box kicking/chasing or clearing kicks straight to the oppositions danger players is madness.

      • WeeAl on

        Completely agree. So frustrating for forwards to see hard won possession kicked to an able back in space. Obvs it can work, but only with accuracy and strategy. SA know how to do it…

    • RuggersB on

      It’ll probably be at best the final matches of the 6N before we see Tandy’s impact. That said any substantial performance changes seen in the Ireland match under Tandy would be a good indicator of just how ineffective Taylor was.

  10. Merlot on

    Consistency of selection would be a start for this year’s six nations.
    We will be underdogs for the first two games and I would be surprised if we won either of them. I’d be over the moon but a bit shocked. Obviously we cannot go into battle with the mindset that we’ll lose, but if we can keep faith with the starting XV (or at least the 23) for the tournament they will gel and go to Italy at least knowing how each other play, both in defence and attack.
    Win in Italy and we should be confident to win at home against France. The on to Wales for the final test and I’d be more than happy with 3 wins. But if we chop and change the team every time there is a set-back we will never know what our best XV is.
    Therefore, barring injury or complete loss of head/form I’d like to see the 23 remain the same throughout the championship:
    Sutherland/Dell
    Brown/McInally
    Nel/Fagerson
    Gray/Gilchrist/Cummings
    Ritchie/Watson/Bradbury/DuPreez
    Price/Horne
    Russell
    Johnson/Jones/Scott
    Graham/Maitland/Hogg/Kinghorn

    • Fraser on

      I think Hastings has to be on the bench to cover 10 (meaning either He or Russell also covers centre, or have someone who can cover centre and wing on the bench).

  11. Pict on

    It really does feel that this 6N could go either way, the team have it in them to win some big games against teams in transition – there probably isn’t a better time to play Ireland now they’re in transition and England given the salary cap and the fact that they haven’t beaten us in three years now. Toony needs to get his selection right and put the fear of god into the players to create some intensity, his reputation is on the line this tournament given how the team has not progressed since 2017. Japan have shown that it is possible to play quick, accurate rugby that through sheer intelligence and speed can win a game. He should go for broke against Ireland and put in the fastest team he can, something like:
    1:Dell
    2:Brown
    3:Fagerson
    4:Grey
    5:Cummings
    6:Richie
    7:Watson
    8:Haining
    9:Horne
    10:Russell
    11:Maitland
    12:Scott
    13:Hutchinson
    14:Graham
    15:Hogg
    Fagerson gets in as he’s a good handler and has a bit of dog in him. Same with Fraser Brown over McInally and Haining at 8. We need some serious grunt in the pack and Toony should tell Haining to just cane it for 40 mins and then put Bradbury on. In terms of scrum half and centres Toony should go with pure form and try scoring potential – Horne provides too much of a threat to be left out. Scott is flying at the moment and its a shame Bennett isn’t in the squad as he is probably the most in form centre we have at the moment scoring tries for fun at Edinburgh but Hutch and Jones are class options. Throw caution to the wind.

    • RuggersB on

      Ireland are in minor transition.
      A coach that isnt new to them their same stand off is now captain…their club teams are playing very well…and they are at home.
      Japan whilst they showed up well against a poor Scotland team.and a poor Ireland team for that matter..got torn a new one against a muscle team. It is not a style of play to duplicate game after game….it very much depends on the opposition. We’ll never achieve anything other than mid table 6N playing the one way. The way rugby is evolving all players need to have balanced skill sets in defense and attack…

      • FF on

        Yeah, not sure how much transition Ireland are really in either – what’s more interesting is they may have sense of vulnerability. They flopped at the RWC, lost a couple of senior players, Sexton looks like he may join Carbery on the sidelines, and lots of their stalwarts are looking suspiciously over the hill. So it is a good time to play them and spring a mugging, IF we can get our act together.

        If Farrell is smart we’ll see quite a few changes to freshen the squad up and ask them to play more heads up rugby. Schmidt was a great coach but had run his course.

  12. Gavin Barr on

    Surprised to see no mention of Hastings. He played a blinder two games running against Exeter and Sale – provided he can stop throwing forward passes!

    • Neil on

      He is one of the form players.. I would start him at 10 in the Italy or France game for development and the fact he is good enough with a full string side.. I don’t see the point in a bench spot for him though as you are not going to want to take Finn off at all really.

      • Neil on

        The odds of losing russell to injury are low, i think its worth sacrificing a game if it he does get injured for the overall benefit of having a more versatile player who will realistically replace someone in a similar position over a lot more quantity of games.

      • TeamCam on

        Hastings can cover 10, 12 and 15. I’d definitely have him wearing 22. My only question would be who takes the 23 shirt.

  13. Scottie on

    My 1st 8 with their replacements, based on what I’ve seen and read so far. Massive impact from the bench when things are more open.

    Sutherland/Dell (Bhatti needs development to get back to his potential ).
    Brown/McInally
    Zander/WP
    Cummings/Craig
    Gray/Gilchrist
    Bradbury/Crosbie
    Ritchie/Watson
    Haining/CDP

  14. TeamCam on

    ”Saracens’ international players have been given the all clear by Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland to take a “sabbatical” season in the Championship knowing they will still be selected for England and the Lions next year if they remain fit and in form.”

    Really? So our players can’t get picked after smashing Wales and Ireland, being left behind for crap players like Haskell and Moriarty, but English players can get selected while playing in a POS league? The Lions is a joke.

    • Scotty on

      I think even William Wallace wouldn’t deny the likes of Farrel, the Vunipolas, Itoje and George a Lions spot, regardless of what league they are in. If playing in a lower league hinders their international performances then it is a different story but I highly doubt that will be the case. Saying they shouldn’t be allowed to play because their club board were fudging figures is a bit silly considering they are some of the best players in the world

      • Alanyst on

        Dunno about the fudging figures…”punishing” players for their direct involvement in institutionalized cheating is not silly.

        Rugby is a team sport: Being in a supercharged team has personal benefits.

        It will be very interesting to see how these players perform in more constrained circumstances.

    • Alanyst on

      Did it specify “English international”?

      Maybe Maitland and Taylor can get a back door into the Lions…;-).

      No less farcical, of course…

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