With the news that Finn isn’t coming back just yet, nor did he take part in a planned conference call with coaches on Monday, certain circles of Scottish rugby society are certain to spiral ever further into the pit of despair that seems to have swallowed this Six Nations.
But I think there are reasons to be cheerful about the tournament so far, if you look for them – and that doesn’t mean Coronavirus putting us out of our misery and cancelling the remaining games.
Adam Hastings is getting valuable experience at the top level
Johnny Sexton didn’t make his test debut for Ireland until the age of 24. Adam Hastings has 19 caps aged 23. By the end of the tournament that should be 21 caps, more than half of them starting at 10. Another couple with famous family names: Owen Farrell had around 25 caps by the time of his 23rd birthday; Beaden Barrett had around 16.
So Hastings sits somewhere in between that group in terms of relative amount of test experience at that age. Clearly the issue going forward, if he is going to get to the level those guys are at (by age 28 or thereabouts), is getting regular game time in a Scotland shirt with Finn Russell still the leading candidate. In any case you want two high-quality standoffs in your squad minimum – so this forced transition has been very helpful in that regard to accelerate Adam’s development.
Hastings hasn’t displayed flashes of Russell-like genius in attack, but he’s been capable, and defensively he’s been sound (tackle stats Att/Missed so far: Ire 13/1, Eng 6/2, Ita 12/2). Being allowed to stand closer to the line might help his attacking instincts, but defensive linespeed is that much quicker at international level which is probably why he’s been kept quite deep. One area of concern – no matter who plays ten – remains accuracy from the tee in Greig Laidlaw’s absence.
Whatever Steve Tandy is doing seems to be working so far
The defence looks a lot less porous: Scotland conceded 11 tries against Ireland, England and Italy last year, compared to just 2 so far this year. The whole team seems at least to be buying into that system.
We seem to be viewing and judging Townsend on a single trajectory since the Cotter era. Yes, the team has had some great results under Cotter but there were some shockers – and since Townsend took control there have continued to be in the years since. Scotland are a wildly schizophrenic rugby nation under any coach and the World Cup was probably the final proof of that equation.
After the World Cup he has clearly re-calibrated his aims to address that as the number one priority. The talk coming out of the camp is a focus on mental preparation and a consistent attitude for 80 minutes of every game.
He’s aiming to make the team harder to beat easily, and that is a new baseline set at the start of this World Cup cycle. On the evidence of the Six Nations so far he has succeeded, so shouldn’t we give him a while to see if this latest reset works? Or does he only get one, or two do-overs, and must be judged over the entirety of his tenure?
Of course, it comes with a caveat: Italy were so bad and the conditions in the Calcutta Cup so awful that you can almost discount them as meaningful in terms of judging whether there has truly been a reset. Which leaves a solid performance in Dublin (away from home, if you’re paying attention) that we could definitely have won.
The scrum is now a weapon
An honourary mention also to the other new coach, Peter de Villiers who seems to have resurrected Scotland and in particular Rory Sutherland as a scrummaging force. If you want some more info on that, check out this video from EK Rugby Analysis which we found via Reddit.
We’re actually where we should be
Pleasingly, we can no longer lose all our test matches this year, which was a distinct possibility, looking at the tough summer and autumn ahead.
So far Scotland have played two teams ranked inside the top five in the World Rankings – one a World Cup finalist two games on from that game.
Regardless of what you make of Eddie Jones cryptic selection policies, or the fact that Irish players are reasonably familiar to us from the PRO14, we have no god-given expectation of beating either of those teams based on recent, or indeed distant, history. One thing I’ve learned over the years of running this site is to stop being so keen to judge based on player potential in our minds-eye rather than the evidence we see in front of us. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have hope, but we need to be realistic – just not fatalistic.
If you go back and look at the tournament through the eyes of you before Finn Russell walked out of camp and you decided Townsend was no longer your favourite, did you really think we’d be anywhere other than where we are after three games?
Why are we still so dissatisfied?
Probably because those games turned out to be close enough to win, and that the mistakes that undid us were of a kind that makes it seems like just when we are turning a corner we find new ways to beat ourselves – like usually excellent finisher Stuart Hogg dropping a ball on the line. It’s very typically Scottish.
The biggest disappointment should be that we didn’t pick up a 4-try bonus point vs Italy to add to our two losing bonuses, lending our league table a more pleasant aspect than it might despite the two losses on there.
Of course there is an elephant in the room – several, really. The off-field issues that have dogged the SRU for the last year or more since Keith Russell’s tribunal (Distribution of Super6 franchises, Typhoon Hagibis, Mark Dodson’s wage packet, the Gammell Report executive power grab, and of course Finn Russell’s continued spat with Toony) – are acting as a goodwill handicap on the management and leadership of the team. The players are having to overcome that before they even get to the starting gate in terms of leaving a positive impression on the fans.
Really what we seem to be most disappointed about is the lack of attack on the pitch. There is still too much kicking, and while that might be the modern way to win test matches (once you sort the defence) it’s not great to watch.
Observe Wales, who have gone from a defensive focus (but winning occasional Grand Slams) to try and evolve to a more attacking game under Wayne Pivac, and it’s not going brilliantly. Too much attack is maybe a bad thing, but certainly we know that attack should suit our backline, and want to see more of it than we do currently.
The thought that most Scotland fans want our team to play fast, entertaining rugby means they are in fact positive souls. Isn’t that another reason to be cheerful?