The Scottish Eight and the Lions – forwards’ debrief

Scotland sent three forwards on this Lions’ tour – the most in an initial selection for 20 years – and they return with two Test capped and one more well set to return in four years’ time at the peak of his career.

Rory Sutherland

Matches played (265 mins total):
Japan
Sharks 1 (sub)
Sharks 2
Stormers
1st Test
2nd Test (sub)

Stats corner:
His 58 metres gained with ball in hand were 2nd only to Mako Vunipola among the Lions’ props.

Rory Sutherland had won his place on the Lions’ tour through his setpiece solidity. Across the 296 minutes he played in the 2021 Six Nations he only conceded a solitary scrum penalty. That rose to 3 in 265 minutes for the Lions though – with 2 coming in Test matches. Like the rest of the tourists’ front rows, he found packing down in South Africa a far more uncomfortable experience than scrummaging in a Six Nations.

He is unlikely to be tested to this degree by any other side in the world but with battle to be renewed against the Springboks this Autumn and, crucially, in France for the RWC in a little over two years’ time it’s essential to turn this into a learning experience.

From a Scotland perspective he will still have Oli Kebble competing for the number 1 jersey. This Autumn will also bring the newly Scottish qualified Pierre Schoeman into the mix. The South Africa born prop has frequently been the go-to starter for Edinburgh in recent years – ahead of Sutherland who has now departed for Worcester. It’s that move to the Premiership that may prove the making of him. Moving to a more setpiece based league will test him and hopefully drive him to become even stronger.

While much of the focus on the looseheads is on how strong they are at scrum time there are fewer scrums taking place (although seemingly still managing to take up more and more game time!) and work around the park has to be on point. It was heartening to see Rory lift his work rate in this respect from his Six Nations’ numbers. Scotland need contributions across the board to make up for not really having one dominant go-to ball carrier.

As it stands:
Still Scotland’s number 1 number 1 but Schoeman and Kebble will be pushing hard and Sutherland will need to get back to the scrummaging consistency he showed in the early part of 2021.

Zander Fagerson

Matches played (120 mins total):
Sigma Lions (sub)
Sharks 1
South Africa ‘A’ (sub)
Stormers (sub)

Stats corner:
There was a rare sighting of an offload on this tour – he hasn’t thrown a single one in his 38-cap Scotland career.

Zander Fagerson was the only one of the Scottish Eight not to make it onto the pitch during the Test series. As the backup option at tighthead (in fact he was the only spare prop available for the first two Tests) he will however have trained and prepared with the Test 23 right up to the end of the pre-match warmups. It’s no substitute for Test caps but he will still have learnt a hell of a lot from the coaches and other players from different environments.

Overall he played the fewest minutes of any forward who made it to South Africa and conceded a penalty every 24 minutes, including a couple at the scrum. Sometimes timing can be everything and it would have been interesting to see how that might have changed if not for the back spasm that kept him out of the Japan game. Debuting at Murrayfield then starting against the Sigma Lions, as well as being paired with loosehead Wyn Jones (old pals from the Six Nations of course!) might have allowed him to get off to a faster start.

The big man has been maturing nicely for the last couple of years but these experiences should allow him to take further steps forward ahead of the World Cup in 2023 and with one eye on returning to the Lions’ fold in 2025 at the peak of his career. Confidence may play a part as, out in South Africa, he was not as involved as he would normally be for Scotland. In Oz he would come into the tour as a veteran and really be able to show what Glasgow and Scotland fans know he is capable of.

As it stands:
Almost unchallenged for the tighthead slot for the national side. Simon Berghan provides solid support but overall this is probably the shallowest position in the Scotland Depth Chart.

Hamish Watson

Matches played (251 mins total):
Sigma Lions
Sharks 1 (sub)
Sharks 2
Stormers
1st Test (sub)

Stats corner:
Outworked his main rival for the number 7 shirt, Tom Curry, with 43% more carries + tackles per 80 minutes.

A lot has been made of Hamish Watson’s tackle on Willie le Roux in the opening Test. It was the kind of dominant hit that he put in a few times on tour but on that occasion unfortunately it went wrong. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with his disciplinary record would know that there was no risk of this being anything more than a one-off error.

It was a shame for Watson that his game time came in the final quarter of the First Test when the Lions were consolidating their lead. An opportunity to be more dynamic in open field would have suited the Edinburgh flanker better. After a mixed showing from Tom Curry (including three early penalties) a dominant display from Watson might have pushed him into the 7 shirt for the following week.

Aside from that le Roux tackle, Pinball did Pinball things for the rest of his time in South Africa. His 10 defenders beaten were only behind Jack Conan among the forwards (and the Irishman had nearly 50 more carries to rack up his tally of 13). There was just a single penalty conceded prior to the First Test. Of course Watson didn’t miss a tackle, going 42/0 with Conan (49/0) the only other 100% man among the tourists’ squad.

As it stands:
Scotland’s out and out first choice at openside flanker. Game time management could be crucial though as he will be 32 by the time the 2023 World Cup is over.

Where now from here for Scotland’s forwards?

In many ways, much of the work to come over the next two years boils down to finding a way to win one or both of Scotland’s key RWC fixtures against South Africa and Ireland. Both of those opponents play an attritional game with lots of kicking and a focus on dominating the setpiece battle and Scotland need to find a way to counter this.

They have get as close as possible to parity at scrum, lineout and breakdown in order to give their own gameplan a chance to breathe. Over the next two years, Gregor Townsend and co. may well opt to prioritise the strongest scrummagers in the tight 5, with their other attributes a secondary consideration, and build a back row to win the ruck battle.

Sutherland will be under heavy pressure for his position for the next couple of seasons. Fagerson has far less competition and adding effective depth at tighthead has to be an absolute priority for Scotland’s management team. Scrum coach Pieter de Villiers could be one of the most important men in the entire setup as he tries to build a unit capable of containing the country of his birth.

In the back row, the 6. Jamie Ritchie; 7. Hamish Watson; 8. Matt Fagerson combination has worked pretty well in the Six Nations but it’s possible the dark blues will need to find more power to avoid being blown away by oversized South African and Irish breakaway trios.

Tags: , ,

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

3 comments on “The Scottish Eight and the Lions – forwards’ debrief

  1. Buddy on

    With Schoeman joining next season , I think opinions will be divided on the best number 1. I rate Kebble and do not recall him letting us down last season. However I have never seen Schoeman put a foot wrong with Edinburgh. I would agree that the Premiership will be good for Sutherland. We have no shortage of talent at loosehead.

  2. Neil on

    A real shame they did not start Watson in all three tests, i think that would have made the difference between the series lost and series win.

    A far better player than penalty machine Curry.

  3. Saint4805 on

    For some reason I don’t think we quite saw the best of Sutherland on tour. Not sure if he was carrying a niggle but he just seemed to look shaky towards the end of the tour which is uncharacteristic of him. It did seem at one point that he was being earmarked for a test start given that they kept pairing him with Furlong and the form hooker at the time. Hopefully he can rest up for a few weeks and regain the form which got him selected in the first place.

Comments are closed.