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

As with some of the Scotland backs, at the 2019 World Cup our team were caught in the midst of a transition phase when it came to the back row.

The John Barclay, Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson unit had been outstanding at the breakdown through the early part of the Townsend era. But by the end of the opening World Cup fixture against Ireland, Watson was being booked on a plane home after an injury and Barclay and Wilson only started again versus Russia. That campaign was a disaster.

The coaches are likely to leave no stone unturned over the next 12 months in order to ensure they head into 2023 with the forward units that will give them the best possible chance of toppling one or both of Ireland and South Africa in order to get out of the group. Given each of those nation’s strengths, the required performances will almost certainly have to be built on a platform provided by the Scottish pack.

Front row

Where Scotland stand:

1. Rory Sutherland
31 years and 0 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 72% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

2. George Turner
30 years and 11 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 39% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

3. Zander Fagerson
27 years and 7 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:

While Rory Sutherland is the incumbent in the number 1 shirt he will be under massive pressure from the freshly qualified Pierre Schoeman – the man who consistently got the nod to start during the period when both props were at Edinburgh. It might seem odd to potentially be sidelining the first Scot to play loosehead for a Lions’ Test team for 20 years but Schoeman can match Sutherland at the set piece while providing a much higher work rate around the park.

Until the start of the recent Six Nations, Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally had dominated game time in the number 2 shirt during the Townsend era, starting 33 out of 37 matches between Autumn 2017 and Autumn 2020. Injuries to that duo have allowed the likes of George Turner and David Cherry to press their case. Given that Brown and McInally will be 34 and 33 respectively by the time the next World Cup comes round it’s no bad thing that options have come to the fore already. It looks to be Turner’s jersey to lose right now, but a couple of seasons with Ewan Ashman playing regular first team rugby could see the Sale Sharks’ man right in the conversation to start after a starry first cap during the autumn

Of all the positions in the Scotland side the man with the least pressure on him is Zander Fagerson. While Simon Berghan may provide solid cover the drop off from the first choice starter is arguably larger at tighthead than anywhere else. Converting Oli Kebble across from the loosehead (even if only on a part-time basis) seems to be a nod towards closing this gap. As things stand though, given the generally long development time for props, this is a tricky area for Scotland to cover and develop.

Locks

Where Scotland stand:

4. Scott Cummings
26 years and 10 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 72% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

5. Jonny Gray
29 years and 5 months at the start of RWC 2023
Has started 50% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

What could happen in the next 20 months:

While there are no Eben Etzebeth-type monsters plying their trade in Scottish rugby, Gregor Townsend has a pretty deep pool of grafting second rows to pick from. The neverending tackle count and rucks hit of someone like Jonny Gray are pretty essential if the dark blues are looking to continue with the twin opensides and breakdown pressure approach in the back row.

It’s hard to see past the two players mentioned above for the starting berths in France. Where things become interesting is when it comes to who provides depth and takes the bench / backup role. Toony was always very keen on Ben Toolis, who has unarguably been the best lineout operator available in this era. The Edinburgh lock’s move to Japan at the end of this season probably puts the kibosh on him being a contender for Scotland selection in future though. Meanwhile Sam Skinner moving back to the capital club as a replacement for Toolis puts him right back in the national spotlight.

There are some next gen players coming through who might provide some extra aggression off the bench. Callum Hunter-Hill looked the part as the most likely nasty bugger to break through from age grade level but his falling out at Edinburgh and limited game time at Saracens have checked his progress. That might put the likes of Alex Craig (junior partner to Hunter-Hill at grade level) and Marshall Sykes in the box seat. Both players have the advantage that they can slot in as a heavyweight blindside flanker if a change is needed in the back row.

Back row

Where Scotland stand:

6. Jamie Ritchie
27 years and 0 months at start of RWC 2023
Has started 94% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

7. Hamish Watson
31 years and 10 months at start of RWC 2023
Has started 89% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

8. Matt Fagerson
25 years and 1 month at start of RWC 2023
Has started 56% of Scotland’s games since the last World Cup

What could happen in the next 20 months:

Is the biggest question how to manage Hamish Watson through to the World Cup? Or is it whether the Mish’s pairing with Ritchie is the right one to combat the Irish and South African back rows? If selection is simply a case of picking the two best flankers then Ritchie and Watson are among the first names on the teamsheets. If a different blend is required to counter the relentless physicality of Scotland’s World Cup opponents then some alternative options need to be tested – ideally in high level fixtures.

While a direct backup openside such as Rory Darge will need to be blooded, the likes of Josh Bayliss or Luke Crosbie would alter the picture in the back row. For a really drastic change, Toony might consider a hybrid lock at 6 (as England, Ireland and South Africa have employed at various times). The question would be who has the dynamism to fill that role? Glasgow have experimented with Scott Cummings at blindside but only in friendly matches. If this was to be a realistic option then the locks mentioned above – Skinner, Craig and Sykes – would seem the most likely candidates to be tried out.

It would be rare indeed to get a fully formed international this late in an RWC cycle but barnstorming Glasgow number 8, Jack Dempsey will be eligible to play for the national side in time for next year’s Autumn Tests under new regulations (and subject to approval). The former Waratah played for Australia at the World Cup in Japan but at the tournament in France could be able to compete for a Scotland jersey with his clubmate Matt Fagerson (who should be hitting his peak in two years’ time).

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

Ewan Ashman;
Alex Craig;
Marshall Sykes;
Rory Darge;
Josh Bayliss.

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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

19 comments on “Scotland’s Forwards – where next on the road to RWC 2023?

  1. Mac 2 on

    Leaving Dempsey out of the equation for the time being, the best possible back row mix would seem to be the currently in form Bradbury, Ritchie & Watson with Fagerson on bench & well able to provide international class cover across 6 – 8

    Reply
    • Kevin Millar on

      Aye, Bradbury’s in the best form he’s been in for a couple of years now. I think Bayliss might sneak in there for Six Nations selection though. Crosbie will be in the conversation as well for a bench spot. The increasing depth is pretty encouraging!

      Reply
  2. Scrummo on

    Loosehead looks strong with Sutherland, Schoeman and Kebble. Hislop, Auterac and McBeth all backups playing at a decent level.

    Ashman and Turner quality at hooker. Kerr going well at Bristol too.

    Fagerson is a quality tighthead. A definite drop off beyond him, think the best chance for solid backup to join Berghan will be hoping McCallum does very well at Worcester.

    Lock first choice pairing are locked in you feel with Skinner clearly not far behind. As you mention Sykes could offer something different, hulking unit and plays with dog. Craig is another big lad with a high ceiling.

    The backrow is a real headache for me.

    I think Crosbie is the 6 we need frankly with his abrasive style of play and size. Ritchie is a top, top class 6.5 and Watson is world class. Dempsey will hopefully be a welcome addition at 8 with Bradbury also looking the part recently. Darge looks phenomenal and Bayliss can play across the backrow as can Fagerson. How on earth you pick 5 from them I’m not sure but at least one or two injuries can be coped with reasonably well.

    Lastly I’d like to wish the OG of Scottish rugby stats and insight, Kevin Millar a very merry Christmas and happy new year!

    Reply
    • FF on

      The age and experience profile of the pack looks extremely encouraging. But the truth is SA and Ireland are bogey teams for us and this normally comes down to being overwhelmed up front. So I feel like we need something different to change this story. I’m not sure what that is or whether we have the personnel available but I don’t think we can sleep walk into the RWC with our presumptive first choice pack – we need to experiment a bit to find that extra abrasiveness.

      Dempsey would certainly help but I’m not sure if he’s given any indication he’d welcome Scotland selection. I suppose we’ll see.

      Reply
    • Kevin Millar on

      Cheers Scrummo – and the same to yourself! Backup for Zander is the one slightly concerning area. If there’s one spot you’d think there’s a highly active search going on for SQ options it would be tighthead.

      Reply
      • Scrummo on

        Cheers Kevin.

        I don’t think we’re too far away though at tighthead.

        I think McCallum is actually a really good player in the scrum and the loose and just needs a chance to show it consistently at tighthead.

        And Berghan who does have the odd really good performance in him (and even a fit Rae to be fair) are very capable of at least holding a scrum up which is an underrated quality and something that hasn’t always been a given in our frontrows. Don’t get me wrong I don’t really want to see Rae on the bench and Fagerson hobbling off in the first 20 but I’d be confident Rae wouldn’t be a penalty magnet at the scrum at least.

        Hopefully Gamble and Wilson will come through strongly as more rounded players though in the future.

  3. Frazer McV on

    As a former (very limited) back row forward I’ve kept a close watch on players come through over the years.

    I was very excited when Ritchie, Bradbury and M.Fagerson came on the scene, and although only JR has really fulfilled that early promise the other 2 have done ok.

    As excited as I was for those 3, Rory Darge has me thinking if he lives up to his early potential we could be looking at a future star for years to come.

    Reply
  4. Tryhard on

    Back row is a really interesting area. Lots of quality options available and we’ve finally got enough difference to pick a horses-for-courses combo depending on the opposition.

    Ritchie is one of our most important players and seems in a straight shoot out with Price for next Scotland captain. Maybe hasn’t been at his absolute best this year but capable of pulling top class performances out when it matters (v France).
    Like what I’ve seen of Bayliss. Superb rangey runner and proper workhorse. Probably the best bench option, being comfortable across all 3 positions.
    Crosbie has kicked on really well this year; he was absolutely fantastic v Dragons a few weeks ago and made about 4/5 turnovers. Offers more dog and more of a carrying option as well.

    Watson is obviously one of our best players but will need to be managed before the world cup as he’s been showing clear signs of burn out this season. Luckily, Watson Jr has popped up this season in the form of Rory Darge. Really excited by this kid, happy to see him thriving at Glasgow and would like to see him drip-fed into the team over the next couple of seasons.
    Ally Miller would do a solid job and can see him really pushing the Glasgow 1st choice over the next year.
    Hope Connor Boyle can get some game time at some point for Edinburgh as well as he was excellent at U20s. Need to see what Dylan Richardson is about as well having successfully riled up the saffas by capping him.

    Reply
    • Tryhard on

      8 is a bit more tricky. I still think it’ll be Matt Fagerson going forward. Our answer to Gregory Aldritt and a smart player who beats people with footwork and running lines more than bosh. Bradbury remains the great hope of our monster 8 and good to see him back in form. Would like to see the combination of the two of them vs Ireland in the 6N maybe to test a bit of a more meaty pack.
      Haining is a nice break-glass option and excited to see Ben Muncaster get a shot.

      Dempsey is quality player and would be a nice addition but we’ve got enough options not to be reliant on him switching.

      Turned into a bit of an essay already but want to echo the others above and thank Kevin and the rest of the SRB staff for all their content this year!

      Reply
  5. Terry on

    Good couple of articles on the backs and forwards. Would it be out of order to do one on the coaching team 1) if we get out of the group stage, and 2) if we don’t?

    Reply
  6. Moody Blue on

    N McBeth, E Ashman, D Gamble, C Henderson, M Sykes, M Fagerson, B Muncaster, R Darge …is a very good potential pack for 2027!!! We may need to coach smart to keep up with other countries with much bigger playing pools but we are still producing some very good players

    Reply
  7. alythman on

    all interesting stuff – just a real worry (again) that world cup draw has done us few favours. Having said that I thought we would lose to Ireland and Japan, but maybe we are better placed this time. Surely one day we can play well against the Irish!!

    Reply
  8. Big Al on

    Two very good articles. My fear is that we will have the most capable and experienced team at the world cup but collectively we haven’t figured out how to beat Ireland or South Africa. It must nag Hoggy and Russell that if they want a legacy then they need a 6 nations title and to do something at a world cup.

    On a more positive spin good to see Glasgow and Edinburgh beat Exeter and Saracens recently so our forwards on their game are right up there. Really interested to see how the 1872 games go.

    Reply
  9. Samuel Laycock on

    Right now the worlds cup draw looks awful for Scotland but it’s worth remembering that Ireland have banked on a 10 who will be 38 at the next world cup and SA have their fair share of aging stars by the next world cup
    mapimpi 33, vermeulen 37, etzebeth 32, willie le roux 34, faf de klerk 32, kolisi 32, mostert 33, Nyakane 34, du toit 31. and more.

    it’s also worth remembering that in our last game v SA we were without our arguable our first choice, 2,4,5,6, 7,12,14, 16,17,18 and 19. I believe Scotland can put out a much stronger pack than we did in the autumn. The issue for me is the Scrum, SA and Ireland are probably the best 2 in the world and will likely remain so it next WC. Can Nel make it? Kebble basically needs to play tighthead exclusively between now and WC to get ready which will be an issue given Zander is also at Glasgow. Could Keeble move to edinburgh to be first choice? Maybe a swap with Atalifo?

    Reply
  10. Neil on

    My Team for 2023 WC

    Stuart Hogg – Darcy Graham – Sione Tuipolotu – Cameron Redpath – Duhan Van Der Merwe – Finn Russell – Ali Price – Jack Dempsey – Hamish Watson – Magnus Bradbury – Sam Skinner – Richie Gray – Zander Fagerson – George Turner – Pierre Schoeman

    Kyle Steyn – Adam Hastings – Ben Vellacott – Jamie Ritchie – Scott Cummings – Willem Nel – Stuart McInally – Rory Sutherland

    Gray in for what a traditional lock is meant to do: Dominate the line-out.

    We have seen how much a difference it makes against the likes of Exeter when he is there.

    Bradbury (in current form) / Dempsey / Skinner / Schoeman / Fagerson / Turner / Watson are all strong ball carriers for their positions. You need physical players against the likes of SA and Ireland and we need to give Russell good ball on the front-foot for him to be at his world-class best.

    Nel on Bench to Scrum for 10 minutes, thats all we need.

    Harris is a excellent defender with a high work-rate but i really think we are under-utilising our world-class attacking back-three.

    Reply
    • John on

      Neil, Your last paragraph re Harris is interesting, my opinion is is sort of the same as yours – clearly a good player but limits attacking options, when Finn plays for Racing he has multiple runners available to “cash in” on Finns genuis, Harris for all his defensive nous is not a runner, but……… then Harris plays for the Lions and Hogg really talks him up in his recent podcast……

      Reply

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