The Scottish Eight and the Lions – backs’ debrief

Scotland sent five backs on this Lions’ tour – the 1989 trip to Australia is the only other in the post war period to match that representation – and they return with every single one of them Test capped. That snapped a 24-year drought for Scottish backs in Lions’ Test series that stretched back to the Second Test against South Africa in 1997.

Ali Price

Matches played (363 mins total):
Japan (sub)
Sigma Lions
Sharks 1
1st Test
2nd Test (sub)
3rd Test

Stats corner:
The only player on the Lions’ tour to touch the ball more than 300 times.

Ali Price has a strong claim to being the real success story of the tour – after all, it’s not that long ago since there were some misguided calls for Scott Steele to take over the Scotland number 9 shirt. His performances for the Lions’ have demonstrated that Price is continuing to mature nicely and he brought real tempo to the warm-up fixtures.

The Test matches were more of a struggle (for everyone involved, not just the scrum halves) but his kicking game was better than Conor Murray’s with more positive outcomes for the Lions. The experience of testing himself against the stifling Springboks’ defence will stand him in good stead for future meetings with the South Africans. In particular, he’ll know just how important it is to make the right decision every time about when to release the ball with chances at a premium in these types of matches.

Looking ahead, the contract situation at Glasgow does hint that there is an expectation that Ali won’t re-sign and will move on at the end of this season. While it’s never nice to lose a Lion, the Warriors are in danger of becoming overloaded at scrum half and having all three of Scotland’s top choices heading in to the World Cup. That hampers the players’ opportunities to really challenge for the national side’s number 9 jersey and also presents some practical difficulties for the club if they have three scrum halves away on international duty at the same time.

If he does move on then it needs to be a suitably big club where he can continue to improve. Ali and Finn Russell started together as the half backs for all three of Glasgow’s wins over Racing 92 in the Champions Cup. It’s a long shot (and England seems a likelier destination) but could the bromance be rekindled in the city of love with the duo playing for Racing in 2022/23? That would surely provide perfect preparation for an RWC campaign in France in the Autumn of 2023…

As it stands:
In a strong position to hold on to the 9 shirt that he has started in for 13 of the 14 games Scotland have played since Greig Laidlaw retired.

Finn Russell

Matches played (158 mins total):
Sigma Lions
Sharks 1 (sub)
3rd Test (sub)

Stats corner:
His rate of 28.4 passes per 80 minutes was comfortably the highest of any non-scrum half for the Lions (Marcus Smith – 19.0; Dan Biggar 17.4; Owen Farrell – 14.9).

Apparently Finn Russell being on meant the Lions would either win by 20 or lose by 20 and there was no in-between. Comments such as this from Will Greenwood – that ignore any semblance of reality – might have been more understandable in the days when The Muscle played for Glasgow (let’s be honest very few of the pundits pay any attention to the PRO14) but seem less and less reasonable when the man himself is one of the highest paid players in the world, playing in the strongest league in the world.

It’s frustrating that this image of Russell persists with nothing very much to back it up. His performance in the final Test was fairly typical Finn, using all the tools at his disposal to finally put the seemingly impregnable Springbok defence to the test and apply some pressure to South African players who had found it all too easy to shut down nearly everything the Lions had thrown at them in the previous 171 minutes of action.

Not that everyone seemed to appreciate the stand off’s outing. It certainly appeared that Finn was not Warren Gatland’s cup of tea. In his post-match comments following both the Sigma Lions’ fixture and the Third Test the head coach’s only comments regarding Russell were about his errors. Possibly a case of preconceived notions dictating what he saw?

Scotland’s coaches may well spend less time worrying about what Russell can and will do and more puzzling over what the third quarter of the deciding Test demonstrated. For 20 minutes plus the South African pack took over and dominated the Lions’ forwards. It won’t matter how well Russell or the backline are playing, if Scotland are getting smashed up front and he’s starved of ball there is very little the stand off can do to influence the game.

As it stands:
Adam Hastings was a worthy understudy when he stepped in while Russell was on hiatus in 2020. Ultimately though, Finn is the outstanding Scottish stand off of his generation and a must pick at 10 for any big games for the national side.

Chris Harris

Matches played (301 mins total):
Sigma Lions
Sharks 2
South Africa ‘A’
Stormers (sub)
2nd Test

Stats corner:
Made more carries and passes per 80 minutes than any of the other centre options – he seemed to enjoy being more involved in the attacking shape.

What a journey Chris Harris has been on. In the space of two years he has made himself indispensable to Scotland and become a British & Irish Lion. Not too shabby for a player who took a decidedly non-traditional route into the professional game and who didn’t make his Premiership debut until the day before his 24th birthday.

On this tour he did everything that was asked of him and more but seemed to suffer slightly due some indecisiveness among the coaches about what they were looking for from their centre pairing. He was the second of three different players to be partnered up with Robbie Henshaw against the Springboks. Harris had the misfortune that his appearance came in the Second Test when the game was played in the air and at the setpiece and opportunities to be involved as an outside centre were extremely limited.

Harris has started in the 13 shirt for Scotland in every game bar one since international rugby returned after the Covid-enforced hiatus. It’s clear that he is one of Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy’s most trusted onfield lieutenants. The coaches will be hoping there are another couple of seasons in his legs, running through to France 2023. There are some solid alternatives but the Scottish backline just looks so much more secure with Harris in the number 13 jersey.

As it stands:
He seems to be the glue that holds a mercurial Scottish backline together. Huw Jones might find his best form again at Harlequins and other options like Kyle Steyn will push for his place but Harris is likely to be making the case for the defence for a while to come.

Duhan van der Merwe

Matches played (541 mins total):
Sharks 1
Sharks 2
1st Test
2nd Test
3rd Test

Stats corner:
His attacking numbers are always phenomenal. Was one of just 3 players to manage a defenders beaten rate better than 1 for every 2 carries (1.4 for Duhan – the other two were Marcus Smith – 1.4; and Anthony Watson – 1.1).

There were less than 200 days between Duhan van der Merwe making his Test debut for Scotland and his inclusion in the Lions’ squad. As one of the least experienced players on tour he might have been expected to be up against it to push for Test selection. Starting 4 of the 6 warm up matches showed the coaches liked what he could bring to the table though and he went on to become just the second Scot in the professional era (after Tom Smith) to start all 3 matches in a Lions’ Test series.

The giant winger seemed to be a bit of a lightning rod for criticism with plenty of pundits lining up to have a pop, particularly after the second Test. While his trip on Kolbe was boneheaded to say the least his all round contributions were definitely a net positive. He avoided the worst of the aerial issues that plagued the Lions. His defensive work was neat and tidy. He chased hard when his half backs kicked. There was precious little opportunity for his trademark bulldozing runs but that was really down to failings in the Lions’ gameplan rather than on the player himself.

For Scotland, van der Merwe is still just starting out. He’s relatively inexperienced with just 10 caps for the national side and 67 appearances for Edinburgh. There is plenty of potential for growth and improvement from the player himself but also the opportunity for the coaches and his teammates to learn how best to make use of his unique skillset and physicality.

As it stands:
There is a glut of talented young wingers coming through the Scottish system right now. There is no-one else with van der Merwe’s combination of power and pace though.

Stuart Hogg

Matches played (320 mins total):
Sigma Lions
1st Test
2nd Test

Stats corner:
His tackle completion rate of 88% was only bettered by one back on tour (Robbie Henshaw with 93%).

There was a tough end to the tour for Hoggy, losing his place to Liam Willams for the decider following the Lions’ high ball struggles in the Second Test. Given the fact that self-described ‘bomb defuser’ Williams fared no better when given the opportunity, it seems fair to say there were some system issues (allied to South Africa managing this area of the game exceptionally well) rather than it being about specific individuals.

The Lions’ gameplan for the games against South Africa didn’t play to Hogg’s strengths either. There’s little point having a second distributor in the backline when the primary option is only passing the ball three times! Even his monster boot was barely employed – an option that could have pushed the Springboks back into positions they would not have been comfortable playing from.

After an outstanding season for Scotland both as captain and full back it was a real shame not to get to see him properly strut his stuff in South Africa. He’ll no doubt be looking forward to pulling on the dark blue jersey again and showcasing what he can do when the shackles are off.

With one eye on the future, there have already been rumours of Hogg heading back to Glasgow for the 2022/23 season. There are plenty of reasons to think this is a move that would make a lot of sense. Hoggy will turn 30 at the end of the coming season and he’s reaching the stage where managing his game time becomes ever more crucial – firstly with an RWC coming up but also if he wants to retain any chance of a fourth Lions’ tour then the kind of rest protocols he can only get in Scotland would give him the best chance of another shot at Australia.

As it stands:
Should lead Scotland to France in 2023. A century of caps and becoming Scotland’s record try scorer are on the agenda as he looks to continue his form from the 2021 Six Nations.

Where now from here for Scotland’s backs?

Age profile will be at the back of the coaches’ minds in this area with one eye on the post-World Cup period. These will be the ages at the start of the next RWC for the Scottish backs who played for the Lions this summer:

Chris Harris – 32.6
Stuart Hogg – 31.2
Finn Russell – 30.9
Ali Price – 30.3
Duhan van der Merwe – 28.2

Most of these guys should still be good to go in 2023 and at the stage of their career where they might not be quite as explosive as when they first burst through but maturity and experience should make up for that by and large.

Adding in the youthful energy of Cameron Redpath and Darcy Graham should keep things lively and give a really strong-looking backline for Scotland to be base their World Cup campaign around.

There remains a need to ensure there are backups who can step in with the minimum of fuss if one of these guys goes down injured. With the right opportunities and a fair wind then in addition to the current supporting cast an alternative backline along these lines might well be pushing for inclusion in the RWC 2023 squad – at the very least:

9. Jamie Dobie
10. Nathan Chamberlain
11. Rufus McLean
12. Stafford McDowall
13. Sione Tuipulotu
14. Jack Blain
15. Cole Forbes

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When he's not watching Glasgow, Scotland (and even Edinburgh) Kevin can usually be found with his head in a spreadsheet working out the most obscure Scottish rugby related stat he can put out on Twitter.
Follow Kevin on twitter @topofthemoonGW

5 comments on “The Scottish Eight and the Lions – backs’ debrief

  1. Toonie's Advisor on

    I have to say, unless you are a died in the wool Edinburgh fan, that Ross Thompson’s performances last season should see him picked ahead of Nathan Chamberlain. Considering the fact that Duncan Weir is probably past his best and Thompson should manage to make the 10 jersey his to lose at Glasgow this season, I think he has a real chance of displacing Jaco as Scotland’s 3rd choice 10.
    I also think there is a lot more to come from Rory Hutchinson, George Taylor & maybe even Cammy Hutchison, before we see MacDowell and Tuipolotu in a Scotland set up.

    • FF on

      Tuipolotu is a funny one – seems to have credit in the bank but I have no idea if he is any good at all. The Japanese league is not demanding.

      Mystified why he was in the summer squad ahead of Hutchison really.

      Ross Thompson had a great breakthrough season and it’ll be very interesting to see how far he can go. I don’t expect Van Der Walt to get anymore caps really, barring an extreme number 10 injury crisis,

      • TENC on

        From what I have seen of Cole Forbes he has natural talent and plays with confidence. He makes his presence felt and communicates with the line well. Scotland is not seeking a replacement 15, but if he goes on like he started , he might just be in the right place at the right time.

      • TENC on

        I am tempted to say we didnt sign the league we only signed Tuipolotu. I have got to assume he has something about him or he would not be signed, we dont have the cheque book or access to those who know him best. If he isnt the real deal, we wont be long in raising our voices! Hutchinson has played a lot of rugby in the last while IMO. I thing you are implying he is worth a place in among many other centres, if you are , I would agree. He certainly has ‘credit in the bank’.

        PS: Shane Williams had nothing but good things to say about his time in Japan. I thing he is a guy with credit in the bank when it comes to commenting on rugby.

  2. SlowWalk90 on

    Good article, but I think it does a bit of a disservice to the following listing those you did as backups:

    9. George Horne
    10. Adam Hastings
    11. Fair enough, but I’m not sure I agree with your “glut of talent” comment for this position.
    12. Sam Johnson or Rory Hutchison
    13. Huw the magnificent
    14. Kyle Steyn
    15. Blair Kinghorn

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