Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Scotland Depth Chart Conveyor Belt – Back Row

[Edinburgh, UK. November 11, 2017] Hamish Watson - Scotland vs Samoa at BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh. (c) ALASTAIR ROSS | Novantae Photography Photo Credit: Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

The last group of forwards to come under the Scottish Rugby Blog’s microscope – the back row. Either the biggest cheats around or streetwise, sharp operators depending on whether or not they play for the team you support.

Blindside flanker

Looking ahead to the 2023 RWC

A slightly unusual Depth Chart here as Jamie Ritchie is also the second choice for the number 7 shirt as well as being first choice at number 6! Much of Scotland’s extra depth coming through at flanker is focussed on players with attributes that might be more traditionally associated with the openside role. That means a continuation of the recent approach of twin 7s (John Barclay + Hamish Watson 2017-2019; Jamie Ritchie + Hamish Watson 2019 onwards) is on the cards.

The likeliest among the younger candidates to bring a slightly different vibe to the 6 shirt would be Luke Crosbie. All raw power and ferocious energy he’s still no monster though at 108kg. It’s probably a more straightforward task for him to slot into the lineup in place of Ritchie (or Watson with Ritchie moving over to 7) rather than a completely different style of player.

Most likely to be capped for the first time this summer:
Luke Crosbie. The former u20 cap has served his apprenticeship with Edinburgh and has more than 50 appearances under his belt. He should be ready to take the next step.

2024 and beyond…

As mentioned above, Scotland are producing plenty of talented back rows but monster ball-carrying or defensively dominant 115kg+ behemoths aren’t really on the agenda. Continuity in the dual opensides approach could well be provided by two players who have been paired together through age grade level – Connor Boyle and Rory Darge. This duo have finally been separated and (hopefully) will get the chance to be in opposition for Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively next season – and for many years to come.

Scotland may also make use of the utility of players like Josh Bayliss and even Ally Miller who can play across the back row. Miller in particular has a chance to set down a marker when he moves to Glasgow next season having been called up to the Scotland squad for the first time during the most recent Six Nations.

Gregor Brown’s first start for Glasgow Warriors was frustratingly short after a promising debut against Leinster. He might currently be the best prospect of a big unit to fit into the back row.

Openside flanker

Looking ahead to the 2023 RWC

In Scotland’s last 30 matches the only player other than Hamish Watson or Jamie Ritchie to manage an appearance in the number 7 shirt is hooker, Fraser Brown! The Edinburgh flankers have dominated game time at openside and should continue to do so all the way through to the World Cup.

Watson will turn 32 midway through that tournament. If he’s still to be at his pinballing best in France then his gametime might need to be even more carefully managed. In the short term Hamish is likely to have other duties to attend to this summer (unless Warren Gatland is one of those that consider the flanker to be ‘lightweight’). Ritchie might be high on the list of players most in need of some time off. If that is the case then there will be opportunities to impress for some other candidates if rumoured Tests against the likes of Japan, Georgia, Romania and Spain go ahead.

Most likely to be capped for the first time this summer:
Tom Gordon. The Glasgow flanker has been absolutely relentless this season, even in the face of the club’s most testing season for many years.

2024 and beyond…

With France likely to be Hamish Watson’s World Cup swansong (cue many tears from Scottish rugby fans…) the question will then turn to how long Jamie Ritchie can carry on if he takes over the 7 shirt. Ritchie will only be 31 at the time of the 2027 RWC but he was a first team regular at Edinburgh by the age of 19 so he’ll be at the end of his 12th full season as a pro having played in an explosive, attritional position that doesn’t tend to be big on longevity.

The next generation at openside is an area where Scotland look to have good depth right through the age brackets. By the start of the 2027 RWC cycle, Connor Boyle and Rory Darge should hopefully be well placed with their clubs. Darge should certainly be at an advantage here with Boyle having to compete with both Watson and Ritchie for minutes at Edinburgh. A new PRO16 setup potentially is also likely to lead to less fixtures clashes with Scotland when the international duo are both unavailable.

Number 8

Looking ahead to the 2023 RWC

Between games against Wales in the 2019 Six Nations and versus Ireland in the 2021 Nations Cup Scotland’s number 8 changed 16 times in 19 matches with no player managing more than two starts in a row. Six different players were used during that time as the national side struggled to find the right player to balance their twin flankers.

In the recent Six Nations, Matt Fagerson started the first four matches and would have made it a complete set but for a training ground injury in the lead-up to the final game against France. Over the last season and a bit he’s adapted his body shape, bulking up to 110kgs but still maintaining the dynamic footwork that has been part of his game since age grade level. Bear in mind, Zander’s wee brother won’t turn 23 until the summer!

Fagerson is almost certainly locked in as Scotland’s long-term option at 8. He has competition from the likes of Nick Haining and Cornell du Preez right now but, if the World Cup starts to become the focus, then other options are likely to be required. In an ideal world, Magnus Bradbury would be the rumbustious ball-carrier Scotland fans have been crying out for. He’s been out of the Scotland squad for more than a year now and recent appearances in the second row for Edinburgh might not be quite what he needs to push his case for international selection.

There are a trio of talents at English clubs who might provide some future depth. If Tom Dodd, Andy Christie or Tom Marshall can break through at a Premiership club (Christie will need to wait for Saracens to be promoted of course!) then there is a high probability of them winning caps for Scotland.

Most likely to be capped for the first time this summer:
Josh Bayliss. The Bath man play across the back row. He should hopefully see his first action in a dark blue shirt after an injury-shortened call-up in February.

2024 and beyond…

Matt Fagerson will only be 29 if he goes to the 2027 tournament. Injuries and form can be fickle and there will be young guns coming after his shirt but it’s entirely possible both he and his brother could still be Scotland stalwarts in six and a half years time.

At this point it doesn’t look like there is a player coming through with what might be seen as distinctively a number 8’s skillset and physique. Much as they have done for large parts of the last decade, Scotland will continue to rely on the type of players with broad skillsets who can feature across the back row. If the strength and conditioning coaches can get hold of another player like Matt Fagerson whose frame can carry an extra 10-15kg of muscle then they might be able to build a contender.

While schoolboy highlights may not be a 100% reliable method of picking out future talent, Rhys Tait certainly seems to have a huge amount of potential. The back rower will be on show for Scotland u20s this summer. He’s certainly one to keep an eye on and with a bit of S&C work he looks to have all the attributes to be a powerful presence on the flank or at number 8.

Other options for 2027:
Ben Muncaster (19.5) – Edinburgh. Another talented teenager, he will move on to a full-time pro contract with Edinburgh next season. His omission from the Scotland u20s training squad suggests he is in with a shot of some game time during the upcoming Rainbow Cup.

2019 RWC squad
John Barclay, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson, Blade Thomson and Jamie Ritchie

2023 RWC squad (speculative)
Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Matt Fagerson, Josh Bayliss and Luke Crosbie

2027 RWC squad (highly speculative)
Jamie Ritchie, Rory Darge, Matt Fagerson, Connor Boyle and Rhys Tait

In case you missed it, the introduction and details of the Depth Chart Conveyor Belt criteria are here.

4 Responses

  1. I think Bradbury needs a change a club to get the best out of him on a consistent basis. I see him as a no.6 Jerome Kaino style player if he pushes on.

  2. Muncaster is probably ahead of Tait, seeing as he becomes a full-time pro next season. Can’t help but see a bit of Glasgow bias in Moon’s choices.

    1. Yeah, that definitely gives Muncaster an edge just now. He’s still to make his debut though, and Edinburgh’s back row roster for 2021/22 is still incredibly crowded.

      I don’t think Tait is a particularly Glasgow-centric pick as a Hawick lad who went to Sedbergh and will be at Exeter Uni. It will be interesting to see where he eventually pitches up in terms of an academy system or even a pro deal.

  3. It’s comforting to think that both Fagersons may still be turning out for us at the 2027 World Cup. However, it’s also a fair bet that numerous rugby presenters will still be routinely mispronouncing their surname at that competition.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion