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Do We Ever Learn Anything?

Argentina v Scotland
Graphic © Scottish Rugby Blog

Aka: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Scotland’s tour to Argentina.

Aka: aaaargh, mucking up another restart?

But more of that later.

This was a summer tour where Scotland responded to being given a first-ever three-test series abroad by playing roughly three halves and 10 minutes of awful rugby. Despite all the misery that watching fans had to endure, in the final minutes of the final test Scotland were still in with a shout – at least until Edinburgh’s Emiliano Boffelli scored the winning try.

By then, of course, seasoned watchers had seen the signs that the series win was slipping away with unforced errors creeping in, oddly-timed substitutions against the run of the game and other harbingers of a Scotland collapse that we’re well used to witnessing.

Sorry, this isn’t going to be overwhelmingly sunshine and thistles. But by way of a Tarantino-Sergio Leone mashup, we’ll run this story backwards so we can end up on a happy note…

The Ugly – Negatively Negative Negatives

What exactly were we doing on this tour?

This was not a “take your best team to knock over one of the big boys” three-test series. We don’t get to do those, possibly ever, if the World Rugby calendar reshuffle does away with them.

Thanks are due, I guess, to Ireland and England (and almost Wales) for showing just how difficult a task that is, but also for showing what sort of steely core you need to get such results. Scotland, on the other hand, showed we have a soft underbelly. Tickle us and we’ll roll over.

This tour was balanced between the desire to win said first-ever three-test series, and to try out new faces and combinations as backups to the big names rested or unavailable. The issue (at least in the backs) was that, as soon as Huw Jones and Adam Hastings pulled out, it suddenly looked like a development tour for the post-Rugby World Cup (and possibly post-Townsend) era.

That now puts a lot of pressure on the Autumn tests to bring those Jones and Hastings type guys back into the fold and start building a genuine squad for next year’s Six Nations and World Cup.

I don’t want to pick on Blair Kinghorn as he’s had brickbats for problems not all his own, but in this particular example if everyone is fit, would Kinghorn be in the starting 23 for a key World Cup group game, let alone playing ten? He’s too versatile not to be in the overall squad, but he’s no longer the first choice in any position. It took until the third test to get the best from him, and we still only really proved that he can cover the position. This was perhaps intended to be a shootout between Kinghorn and Hastings for the backup slot to Russell. Despite the good performance in the third test, we still don’t know if Kinghorn is a better choice backup than Hastings in crunch games. Ross Thompson will have learned plenty on tour, but not on the pitch.

Nor do we know who the best inside centre is. So many positional questions are still unanswered – even if one of the more pleasant ones to arise was whether or not Mark Bennett might genuinely now be capable of usurping Chris Harris at 13.

In the forward pack things are more settled, but for example not enough time was given to Javan Sebastian (and Oli Kebble didn’t even go) to see if we do actually have a backup for Zander that isn’t WP Nel.

Too many of the decisions Townsend needs to make ahead of 2023 could not be road tested in Argentina, despite the illusion that was exactly what was going on. We still don’t really know who would replace Stuart Hogg at fullback in an injury re-shuffle. It might be Hutchinson, if he hadn’t got injured. But really he should be getting a run at 12, as should Cam Redpath if fit. It could be Kinghorn, or Jones or Ollie Smith. The list goes on – and that is the problem.

Kudos for almost winning a test series with an inexperienced squad, but I don’t feel we learned much. This tour has done little to answer any of the big questions around selection other than who is backing up Ali Price (Ben White is the answer).

The Bad – Plain Old Negatives

Restarts, restarts, restarts.

If Scotland could control the kickoff immediately after scoring, they’d have won the third test by a good margin. Instead they constantly gifted momentum back to Argentina. We’ve had this issue for nigh on a decade which makes me think it can’t be a coaching issue as about a million forwards coaches have come and gone in that time. It settled down for a while only to reappear in the last year or so. It must be due to concentration – hard to believe for a group who spout “we go again” as a mantra.

SRB legend Alan Dymock of Rugby World looked into the issue across all the recent home nations tests. Receiving teams lost a total of 11 restarts across all 12 summer tests. There was only one restart receiving error in total across all three Ireland-All Blacks series. Conversely, Scotland accounted for 4 of the total fluffs. As a whole, the eight participants had a success rate of 91%. Scotland’s percentage as a standalone drops to 76%.

In short they are still plagued by inconsistency, and that goes right across the board from discipline to a lack of a cohesive playing style (against the same opponents three weeks in a row). It isn’t just on the pitch either, responsibility for a fair bit lies with the coaches.

The tactical approach was aimless in the first test. By the third they had sorted things out and were playing a direct, hard carrying offloading game that was at times, brilliant to watch.

Then what seem like pre-planned substitutions (particularly of forwards) and a general lack of game management kicked in. When one player looks tired, they take off someone else. Obviously they are privy to injury worries in real time that we may not be aware of on our couches, but why did they take skipper Hamish Watson off with a test series on the line? They cared enough about the result to leave Zander to play the full 80, but when Mish went off Scotland – who had been direct and skilful all game – suddenly looked directionless, back as they had in the first test.

Which is more useful – your front runner seriously fatigued playing a full match, and the errors that come with it, or a backup on the bench you don’t trust to come on and see the game out?

Scotland still lack a ruthless streak to put weakened opponents away. If he was there, Finn Russell might have been probing kicks and playing the territory to maintain control. He might equally have been substituted when needed most.

Scotland continued doing what they had been all match. While effective, it did not stop Argentina from getting back into the game and winning the series.

The Good – Positives

The biggest positive of the tour is perhaps the resurgence of Mark Bennett, who showed several flashes of attacking brilliance while also leading the defence in Chris Harris’s position. With Huw Jones potentially returning to the fold now too, might we finally see the Scotland attack start to open up in midfield? If nothing else it might force Harris to play more with ball in hand.

Ben White also showed some great play in the second test and he should really have been selected for the third. He seems like the second choice behind Price now but there are plenty of candidates just behind those two. With Jamie Dobie off to pick up some tricks at Bay Of Plenty, things look hopeful at 9 for the foreseeable future.

There were also success stories in the pack as Zander Fagerson went unpenalized in the third test, the summit of a solid tour against some very useful front row opponents. He won’t have liked the result but he had a 50th cap to be proud of.

His brother Matt also had a very good tour with hard direct carries that actually made ground. Notably his best success was found in the wider channels so he still needs to punch holes close in, but he isn’t alone in that requirement.

If Ewan Ashman sort out the darts he could be fixture at hooker for long time to come. He’s like Ross Ford but a 7/8.

In the second row Sam Skinner showed that alongside Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings that core group of four locks for Scotland is now fairly set. He could really kick on up at Edinburgh and push for a starting berth alongside Cummings, who is probably now our most dynamic lock when fit.

In the back row, the dual openside approach once again paid dividends. The starting back row unit for Scotland to play their own brand of rugby looks like 3+1 in almost any combination of Rory Darge, Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson. There are big question marks over whether that brand will actually work against the two sides we struggle most with (Ireland and South Africa). Luckily with Luke Crosbie and Andy Christie both getting game time this series, we’ve got a few more bruising individuals lining up to give us probably our best depth in any area.

Hamish Watson’s performance as captain was also a highlight. It is rare he’s not on the team sheet, always leads by example and it’s a wonder we didn’t think of it before. He is sure to be in the frame to lead the team in the Autumn – might Toony have solved at least that one problem on this tour of Argentina?

Compiled with assistance from the SRBlog team.

14 Responses

  1. It’s the quality of the kick (and chase)at restarts that causes trouble…(almost)always is.
    The Arg’ 10 had license to use his skills on us and the chasers were clued to them.

  2. Alas this was a wasted tour IMO, Hutchinson at 12 Muncaster at 8, Thompson at 10 (a stand off that can kick), Kebble at 3 all missed opportunities.
    Receipt of kick offs were poor and line outs were an issue especially in the 3rd test, surely this is simply poor coaching (lack of height in the back row didn’t help).

    Hastings a different class from Kinghorn at 10.
    White not starting the 3rd test was ridiculous (then Horne on best for 80 was funny).
    Tuipulotu not progressing at I hoped.

    1. But despite all of that playing them out of position, giving every man a chance to play ethos, it was a success, we came within minutes of winning the series. That is what Toony will be telling the Blazers. I would do the same, it is not a lie and much as we want to win, he has done enough to maintain our world ranking and tried a few things.

      Eventually you get past the amazement of it all, the anger and frustration passes .

      Chill this summer, you will need your patience for next season.

      1. Confuscious McBain, 3 weeks off staycationing, beaches, fish n chips with my daughters will see me suitably refreshed 😊

  3. Good ,well written, balanced, article Rory, I cannot argue with it, enjoyed reading it. The unanswered questions section jumped out to me. I wonder if Kebble was just unavailable, or was he really snubbed, it seems really odd he was not tested. There has to be a place for him in this squad. It felt like Sebastian was making up the numbers and much as he looked like he was enjoying himself , he was unspectacular.

  4. Excellent article Rory, I only saw highlights of the games so cant really comment in depth but from what I saw and the guys on the podcast analysis it sounds like we spent the summer finding out the answers to questions no one asked, i.e. is Rory Hutchinson a fullback? The only question I was interested in was has Mark Bennett still got it? That was a resounding yes.

    As for the rest I really don’t understand the strategy and vision. Why are we so hell bent on playing guys out of position? I just don’t get it. Tuipolotu is not a 12, Hutchinson is not a 15, Kinghorns best position is not 10, so why play them there, if you have all 3 of those guys on the pitch just play them in their regular positions.

    There was a lot of chat on the podcasts about adapting the game plan to fit the players, I’m not sure about that. We have all discussed in the past the merits of successful nations having a game plan and the players essentially being plug and play, no big changes in strategy just because one or two key players go off. Individual players obviously have strengths and weaknesses so there is a balance to be found but I think a coherent and consistent game plan is far easier to follow for the team as a whole, if an individual player is wholly unsuited to that type of play then the player shouldn’t be picked, square peg round hole.

    I think we are basically all in agreement that the best Scotland performances in recent years have come with two opensides, flat passing off of 10 and a second distributor at 12. A lot of people throw shade at Pete Horne because of a couple of admittedly fairly disastrous games at 10 which sadly overshadows the fact he played in a lot of our best games and was instrumental in them, at 12. Maybe that is what Toonie wants to do but the player most suited to that, Cam Redpath, keeps getting crocked within 5 mins. Sammy J can hit some sweet lines but he isn’t really a distributor, that leaves Hutchinson, so why the hell play him at 15?

    The forwards is a slightly better picture, I think our best players are fairly well established now and its just a case of who is available. We still miss Jamie Ritchie but Mish seemed to be putting in some good performances which was a fear as he has been a bit off the boil for some time.

    1. It’s the pack that will count – it always does – for or against progress in the AIs, 6N and RWC.

      Any hope of getting out of our group rests on being able to match or best SA and Ireland up front.

      There are some good signs up front coming out of this Argentina tour but not enough of them to make me think we can match the Frances, Irelands and Saffers there just yet.

      Forgetting the backs for now, it’s critical for us to produce an eight plus subs that are canny, strong, gnarled, skilful and – yes – nasty, but within the laws. I think it’s in there somewhere and we got a glimpse of it on this tour.

      1. You are spot on in some respects and as much as I am a massive critic of Townsend you can only work with the ammunition you have,and whilst our starting front row is competitive our second row is powder puff and has been for years. The best we have is Cummings and Skinner but they very rarely start. Similarly in the back row Fagerson has improved and generally dosent have a bad game but he is simply not big or aggressive enough to make a significant impact at that level and the back row combination in the last tour game will simply get blown away against SA and Ireland and was no doubt a contributory factor to our lineout woes.

  5. Since the sevens team won’t be using there ‘kick-off’ anytime soon-can we have it.

  6. Bath injury announcement includes detail that Cameron Redpath is training in august and expected to be available for pre season friendlies.

    Also Franco Smith seems to have emerged as likely Glasgow coach and will be announced in a week or so.

      1. Hard to say as he’s largely coached for struggling teams. I think he’s got a reputation as an innovative thinker, certainly coaches ‘Glasgow-style’ and Italian rugby holds him in high regard despite struggles of the national team during his era. He’s probably as good as Glasgow can get atm and much happier with him than someone like Dean Richards. He’s obviously no one’s dream candidate but I don’t think Glasgow is a team that looks like it’s going places anymore. This could be the gig that really makes Smith’s name so if he’s ambitious and smart maybe he’ll reenergise the club.

        According to an Italian site he has agreed a contract but SRU negotiating a release payment to Italian union.

      2. Talking of former Italy Head Coaches, I wonder if Conor O’Shea was in contention for the Glasgow job. I always thought he did a fine job with Italy under the circumstances and seemed to be an innovative coach.

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