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.