Scotland’s Backs – where next on the road to RWC 2023?

Heading into the last World Cup, Scotland ended up caught somewhat in transition in the centres and back 3. After peaking in 2017 and 2018, the year of the World Cup itself was a definite step backwards. It was probably just a season too far for some personnel who had, until that point, been key to Scotland’s improvement to that stage.

Five of the current Scottish backline will hit 30 before the 2023 RWC kicks off and this is something that will be in the thoughts of the coaching staff. In the best-case scenario, these players will all still be at the top of their game in France but potential replacements need to be blooded and ready to go before then in case there is any drop off from the incumbents.

Half backs

Where Scotland stand:

9. Ali Price
30 years and 4 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 94% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

10. Finn Russell
30 years and 11 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 44% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

What could happen in the next 20 months:

The Prussell bromance should (hopefully!) still be within its peak years as the 2023 tournament kicks off. The slightly surprising – but very welcome – decision of Ali Price to sign a new contract with Glasgow at least reduces the headache of managing game time for one of the national side’s star half backs. It seems unlikely that Finn Russell will tread the well-worn path of players returning to Glasgow though and, while playing club rugby in France should be good prep for an RWC in the same country, fans and coaches alike may feel some anxiety about just how much time he spends on the pitch in the next year and a half.

Russell’s absence from the 2020 Six Nations did at least give Adam Hastings the opportunity to show he can step in, even if no-one can fully replace Finn. At scrum-half, a summer off in 2022 for Price should finally give opportunities for others to take on the starting 9 role for a three-Test series against Argentina. Jamie Dobie, George Horne and Ben Vellacott should all travel which will provide a titanic battle for the jersey.

Centres

Where Scotland stand:

12. Sam Johnson
30 years and 3 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 67% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

13. Chris Harris
32 years and 9 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 78% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

What could happen in the next 20 months:

Since just before the last World Cup in Japan it has been rare indeed for Scotland to take to the field without Chris Harris in the outside centre channel. The British and Irish Lion has been a key component in Steve Tandy’s systems and a transformation that has seen the Scottish defence become one of the stingiest in the Six Nations.

The Gloucester player will be just shy of 33 come the end of the tournament in France though and how long he can continue this period at the peak of his career will be exercising the minds of the coaching staff over the next two years. Scotland simply don’t have a like-for-like replacement waiting in the wings for Harris.

While it might not be the position he has featured in more recently, the rugby intelligence and physicality of Kyle Steyn would seem the closest the dark blues are going to get. The Warriors’ player might not be the uber-defender that Harris is but he would offset that by adding to Scotland’s attacking threat in the 13 spot.

An outside bet to compete for this crucial position in the Scottish backline could well be Matt Currie, a Scotland u20 and Academy centre who has already made his first team debut for Edinburgh. France 2023 might come a fraction too early for a player who will be just 22 at that point and has yet to make his Test debut, but if he gets some heavy involvement in the 2022 Summer tour there would still be time for him to be embedded in the midfield.

The other big question that might need answered is the composition of a pairing to get the very best out of what is likely to be Finn Russell’s final shot at a Rugby World Cup. Would a second playmaker (in the mould of Cameron Redpath) free the nonconformist standoff of some of the decision-making responsibilities? Might a more muscular presence at inside centre (for example the barely tested Sione Tuipulotu) give Finn the kind of dump-off option that he hasn’t had since Alex Dunbar left the scene? Or does Sam Johnson remain the top choice as someone who combines a little bit of both possibilities?

These are all things that need tried out within the next 12 months or so if the run in to the World Cup itself is to be more about tweaking a settled side.

Back 3

Where Scotland stand:

11. Duhan van der Merwe
28 years and 3 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 67% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

14. Darcy Graham
26 years and 2 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 56% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

15. Stuart Hogg
31 years and 2 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 89% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

What could happen in the next 20 months:

How can Stuart Hogg be managed through to his third World Cup campaign? As it stands all Scotland can do is give him next summer off and rotate for a couple of lesser matches between Autumn 2022 and the RWC warm-ups. Beyond that, it’s likely to be full noise for Hoggy – unless, of course, he returns north to Glasgow for season 2022/23. It’s something that seemed almost certain when he left but the full-back appears to have really settled in at Exeter such that finishing his career in Warriors’ colours might not pan out. From the SRU’s point of view it would make a great deal of sense though.

There’s no doubting the attacking potency of Scotland’s wing “twins”, Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham. Their try-scoring records stand up there with pretty much anyone who has pulled on the dark blue jersey in the last 90 years. What the incumbents for the previous two World Cups (Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour) were able to provide was a bit more defensive and aerial solidity. More than that, Maitland’s ability to slot seamlessly in at full-back freed up Hogg to fill his full potential at getting heavily involved in thick of the action.

As it stands, the likes of Kyle Steyn, Rufus McLean and Blair Kinghorn are providing really good backup options but are unlikely to break the first-choice duo’s stranglehold on the starting lineup unless they have a dip in form. If there is one current player who looks like he might fill the Maitland role it’s Cole Forbes. He has the potential to be Hoggy’s long-term successor in the 15 shirt but for now, if given the opportunity against Argentina next summer, he could be the player that could just shift the balance in the back 3 to a little bit more solidity without losing too much in terms of attacking flair and try-scoring.

Key players for the three Test series against Argentina in the summer

Ben Vellacott;
Jamie Dobie;
Kyle Steyn;
Matt Currie;
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

14 comments on “Scotland’s Backs – where next on the road to RWC 2023?

  1. Scrummo on

    Interesting topic.

    Seems like with so many in their early 30s we could see everyone at their peak or we could see some of them on the downward side of it, in rugby you never really know who will go on strongly well into their mid 30s and who will drop off early. Fingers crossed these lads all manage the former.

    Long term from a development point of view it would be good to see this backline at some point against Argentina:

    Dobie
    Thompson
    McLean
    Redpath
    Currie

    Forbes

    That for me looks like the bones of the next backline post Russell and his generation. Unsure who the second wing could be in terms of young prospects (Blain?), but VDM, Graham and Steyn are all younger than the others in our first choice lineup so no real concern yet.

  2. Neil on

    It seems 9 & 15 are the spine of that backline. Always going to be selected if fit. Lets hope they don’t get injured.

    Backline for Argentina Series

    9. Vellacott
    10. Russell
    11. Van Der Merwe
    12. Redpath
    13. Harris
    14. Graham
    15. Hastings

    We have seen both Kinghorn and Thompson be used as a 10/15 back-up to Hogg before and it’s being tried at clubs… i think Hastings has shown the best ability to play 15 however from his time at Glasgow, the last game against Leinster in particular was outstanding.

    On Midfield. I think we lack creativity or a line-breaker still. For me you start looking to develop Redpath/Harris or Johnson/Tuipolotu.

    Perhaps Johnson/Steyn but he needs to be starting at 13 for Glasgow if thats to happen i think.

    • Kevin Millar on

      I don’t think anyone who was with the Lions in South Africa will be on Scotland’s tour of Argentina – they will need the summer off as the last chance for a break ahead of the RWC.

  3. Willie Mackenzie on

    I don’t get the love for Cole Forbes. He’s not especially quick, not especially physical, not especially skillful. Solid all rounder, nothing more than that. Fine for Glasgow squad option but a *colossal* step down from Hogg.

    • Richard Hunter on

      Yes been slightly disappointed so far from a Warriors perspective tbh. I’m sure there’s loads more to come.

      • Kevin Millar on

        Forbes is a classic Kiwi back 3 so I’d say skills and physicality are not an issue. Great under the high ball and a decent boot on him. He’s not Rufus McLean quick but he’s quick enough – top 10 in the URC for clean breaks and metres made.

        We don’t have anybody who isn’t a pretty big step down from Hoggy but, realistically, we have to start the process of preparing for a transition that will probably take place during the next RWC cycle. Boffelli and McLean are NSQ. Kinghorn is playing 10. Maitland is 4 years older than Hogg. Forbes is well placed for the opportunity and at 22 there’s plenty of chance to develop him.

    • Bert on

      It is time to get a succession plan in place. Scotland depend on Stuart Hogg and that is not a strategy that is sustainable. You need to crack eggs to make an omelette.

  4. John on

    Agree with Kevin Millar, anyone who had significant game time with the Lions will rest this summer.
    So, H.Jones, K.Steyn, S.Tuipulotu C.Redpath, D.Graham A.Hastings, B.Vellacott.

  5. Bert Niven on

    A bit dated already. I think Ross Thompson will feature by 2023, over Hastings, along with McKay, Forbes and Dempsey.

    • FF on

      McKay isn’t SQ, Dempsey will be but has not yet indicated whether he wants to commit for Scotland or not. Forbes has a lot to do to prove he’s worthy of a squad place in 2023. If there’s five back 3 players going it will be Hogg, DVDM, Darcy all nailed on them two more from Steyn, Maclean, Forbes, Kinghorn, maybe even Maitland. I’m not sure Forbes is obviously at the head of that queue.

      You might be right about Thompson he looks like a quality player indeed. Hastings and Kinghorn can cover 10 and 15 and other positions so I suspect at least one of those will go.

  6. Tryhard on

    Centres are a bit of an odd one. Plenty of options without any true outstanding candidates.

    The SQ options currently playing/injured:

    12: Johnson, Redpath, Lang, Scott, Dingwall, G Taylor, C Hutchinson, McDowall, Dean
    13: Harris, Jones, Tuipulotu, Steyn, Bennett, R Hutchinson, Currie, D Taylor, Grigg, Johnstone

    12 is a reasonably motley bunch with none (other than Johnson) having really proven themselves to be top class yet. If Redpath can stay fit, he has by far the highest ceiling of the rest. Big if though.
    Scott is great but the oldest by quite a bit.
    Lang is fine but hasn’t looked like a true international option.
    Taylor, Hutchinson and McDowall not much more than glimpses.

    13 is a bit more interesting with loads of different styles and far more potential. Jones hasn’t clicked at Quins yet but if he can is a significant point of difference. Steyn looks like he would slot in anywhere at international level with ease and Tuipulotu seems to be offering something Toonie is very keen to get into the Scotland team.
    Think the world cup will be too soon for Currie although like what I’ve seen so far and looks like a natural successor for Harris. In a very similar mould.
    Starting to look like Rory Hutchinson is destined to become a nearly-man. Seems like he hasn’t been able to satisfactorily prove to any coach that he can be consistently trusted. Shame as he’s a fantastic attacker.

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