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.