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Scotland Men’s Rugby: the Mammoth 2022 Recap

Darcy Graham battles through a tackle - © Autumn Nations Series/Inpho Photography
Darcy Graham battles through a tackle - © Autumn Nations Series/Inpho Photography

You’ve not had much by way of the written word, so here are a years worth of words in one go. We’re focusing just on the men, and just on Scotland, otherwise it’ll be longer than Pinocchio’s nose in a cabinet meeting.

Scotland’s 2022 Six Nations

Scotland men’s rugby team started 2022 with the Calcutta Cup at home to England, their second Calcutta Cup opener in a row. Scotland under head coach Gregor Townsend may be many things, but phased by Eddie Jones’ England they generally have not been.

On the pitch inside 20 minutes for Ali Price while he underwent an HIA, London Irish scrum-half Ben White got a great start to his Scotland career with a try after a typically mazy Darcy Graham break. A Finn Russell penalty just before half time kept the score in Scotland’s favour perhaps against the run of play, but Marcus Smith kept England breathing down Scotland’s collar – and took a try just before the hour to put England in charge on the board. Skipper Stuart Hogg showed a moment or two of madness which suggested the weight of the captaincy might not be entirely suited to the man from Hawick, no matter how much he wanted the honour.

It looked like Scotland were struggling to make headway until a move that saw superb back-to-back cross-field kicks from Russell led to a penalty try after Darcy Graham was prevented from catching the ball. A raucous Murrayfield – full crowd back in harness for the first time since Covid – exploded into life, before Finn iced the cake with a penalty that slithered inside the post to make it 20-17.

Of course, Jones will not be the England coach for the return fixture next year, which sees England as opening weekend opponents once again.

This game also saw an injury to Jamie Ritchie that would keep him out until the Autumn, but did allow impressive youngster Rory Darge to push up the squad list and make the bench for the next fixture.

And the score the next weekend was exactly the same: 20-17 to the home side.

Sadly that meant Scotland coming out on the wrong side of Wales. As would become a theme for the year, the wing pairing of Duhan van Der Merwe and Darcy Graham were at the heart of everything good Scotland did in attack and even defence; with Finn pulling the strings from standoff, but Scotland overall were worryingly inconsistent.

Russell’s slightly wayward boot off the tee was in contrast to the redoubtable Dan Biggar who kept Pivac’s Wales in touch all through the first half. Biggar would ultimately secure the final points; his winning drop goal went over while Russell was in the bin for one of those “was it a deliberate knock on or did he try to catch it” tackles; having half-arsed his own drop-goal attempt just beforehand.

That wasn’t going to be the biggest blot on his copybook during the year though.

This was no Covid-era behind-closed-doors away fixture at a diddy stadium; it was a real chance to knock off Wales at the Principality, something we rarely looked like doing much over the Gatland era. Now with Pivac given the heave-ho, we’re back in some sort of Gatland era until next spring at least. Will we ever get another such chance? We’ll need to wait at least a year and a World Cup to find out.

As we breezed through the midpoint of the tournament quicker than a Qatari bung sliding into a brown envelope, the resurgent Les Bleues came to town. France scoring length of the field tries sparked by Antoine Dupont was perhaps expected – they would score at least two on the road to the bonus point win – just not inside the first eight minutes, please?

Ali Price, who had a very useful tournament off the back of Lions selection, had a try held up, but Rory Darge signalled his full arrival on the international scene to the wider world by scoring minutes later.

Scotland could have gone in at half time ahead, if defensive supremo Chris Harris had made any sort of pass with a three on one overlap. I know the merits of a rapid wide pass (Finn does it often to skip defenders), but does no one teach fixing your man and passing along the line any more when the need arises? Everyone does it in the warmup, for goodness sake.

As it was, Gael Fickou ran around most of the Scotland team to score instead, and give the visitors an even wider lead at the break that we could not overcome.

France marched on towards the Grand Slam despite a typically laissez-faire approach to kicking their goals. At times they play total rugby that is frighteningly entertaining, and should be favourites for their own World Cup in 2023.

Scotland on the other hand, marched off to Rome in a bid to make sure Italy retained the wooden spoon, facing a home squad who had never experienced winning a Six Nations match (they would break that duck against Wales later in the tournament, to the enjoyment of all).

Scotland found it fairly comfortable in the end; they scored a length of the field try of their own with Harris the eventual scorer – Ali Price showing him how to fling a long range pass at full stretch in the process. Supersub Ange Capuozzo showed a bright spark for Italy on his debut; he and Darcy Graham showing wee guys still have a place in international rugby.

If they have figured out Italy and Eddie Jones’ England, Scotland seem at times utterly incapable of solving the puzzle that Andy Farrell’s Ireland pose.

The tournament ended with a proper 26-5 suffocation in Dublin. The wildly erratic Scots were hampered by the banishment to the bench of Finn Russell, scapegoated for joining the rest of the leadership group in a few beers to celebrate Ali Price’s 50th cap the weekend before, apparently in breach of team protocol.

Pierre Schoeman’s try before half time would be Scotland’s only points of the game, which also saw headless performances from Price, Graham and Hogg who to that point had great tournaments.

Poor game management and errors by Scotland were compounded by Jonny Sexton coming out of hibernation for one of his masterclasses in “foot on the throat” rugby where Scotland just couldn’t escape Irish pressure. Unable to topple France, Sexton and Ireland claimed the Triple Crown instead.

Perhaps guilty of trying too hard to carry the team when they faltered (or to make up for the trip to the pub which as skipper he should have perhaps avoided or vetoed), Hogg would lose the captaincy after this match and sit out the summer tour.

Who was the Scotland Captain? Stuart Hogg x 5
Who started at Number 8? Matt Fagerson x4, Magnus Bradbury
Who started at 10? Finn Russell x4, Blair Kinghorn
Which centre pairings were used: Johnson/Harris x3, Tuipulotou/Harris x2
Scotland’s 2022 Six Nations Record: Won 2, Lost 3 (placed 4th in table)

Scotland in Argentina, Summer 2022

Our natural place in the rugby world order restored by a humbling in Dublin, other teams looked forward to tours in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Scotland prepared for a less starry, but still tricky, three match tour of Argentina.

Of course my grumbles about never getting to tour New Zealand (et al) aren’t entirely fair. Scotland’s three test series was actually the first such series ever Scotland have played overseas.

Maybe in fact the good old days weren’t as good as we thought?

They didn’t exactly justify a place at the big boys table on these performances, playing at least three halves of awful rugby over a series that saw Argentina – at times similarly poor – clinch it in the final match. Despite the “A” side’s warmup fixture against Chile, it was unclear if this was indeed a development tour – the experiment of Blair Kinghorn at 10 continued apace but Russell and Hogg were the only Lions rested at home, while the injury-enforced absence of Huw Jones and Adam Hastings perhaps put a hold on some of the experiments Toony had in mind.

Tour skipper Grant Gilchrist was dropped for the third test and while Hamish Watson did well to fill in, he would not be used in a similar role come the autumn.

Scotland probably did enough to win the first test with Rory Hutchinson lively at fullback but the usual ills of indiscipline and inconsistency let them down, with Argentina proving dogged opponents under their new coach Michael Cheika.

The second test was probably the pick of the series, certainly from a Scottish point of view as they beat Argentina 29-6 with a blistering second half performance.

The third test went down to the wire, both sides scored some nice tries and Watson’s Scotland pack looked like they might hold out, until Edinburgh favourite Emiliano Boffelli clinched it at the death to send the locals wild.

To be honest, Argentina probably deserved it.

Overall Blair Kinghorn did pretty well at 10 and certainly kicked most of his goals, something we would all conveniently forget come the autumn.

Mark Bennett had a very good tour with both centres cutting superb lines off the first receiver, but would be largely unused in the autumn, as would Rory Hutchinson.

In the pack the second row continued to falter at the set piece but at least Matt Fagerson looked like he had finally answered the question as to who the best Number 8 was – at least until Australian cap Jack Dempsey decided whether he would throw in his lot with the Scots later in the year due to new residency rules.

Who was the Scotland Captain? Grant Gilchrist x 2, Hamish Watson
Who started at Number 8? Matt Fagerson x3
Who started at 10? Blair Kinghorn x3
Which centre pairings were used: Johnson/Bennett x2, Tuipulotou/Bennett
Scotland’s 2022 Summer Tour Record: W1, L2

Autumn Internationals

Even coming off a lacklustre tour, no one really expected there to be much talk of Gregor Townsend’s job being in jeopardy less than a year out from a World Cup.

Then he announced his squad, with Finn Russell missing.

The Racing 92 pivot would have been unavailable for the out-of-window test against Australia and was expecting his first child to be born any day, but had nonetheless made himself available for selection after the summer off. Toony’s talk of poor “form” meaning that Finn was, in effect, now the fourth choice behind Kinghorn, Hastings and Ross Thompson, was given short shrift by the media and fans.

Suddenly an already tough autumn series looked like Townsend rolling the dice on his job in a battle of wills with his stubborn playmaker, rather than celebrating the resurgence of Richie Gray as we really should have been.

Kinghorn’s off day with the boot in a game that should have seen Scotland beat Dave Rennie’s Wallabies did nothing to quieten the clamour, especially with Finn Russell highlights reels popping up online after every subsequent Racing win in the Top 14 and a kick percentage in the very high 90s.

Exiled players restored to the squad, Adam Hastings was handed the reins for the win over Fiji but he quickly got injured. Audible groans around Murrayfield when Kinghorn came off the bench won’t have helped the young man’s confidence, as he became a pawn in a battle of wills between Townsend and Scotland fans not of his own making.

There were rumours that Finn would have been restored to the squad for the New Zealand game anyway as part of an existing plan; as it was his irrefutable form saw him called up and straight into the starting 10 shirt to face the All Blacks.

Five years on from the near miss inspired by Doddie Weir, the big man and his family were back again to present the match ball, with Weir now noticeably suffering the ravages of Motor Neurone Disease.

New Zealand roared out of the blocks and were 0-14 up inside 7 minutes but Scotland’s response was to ride their luck as hard as they could, first Hogg then Graham taking opportunistic scores (Graham almost had another try in the corner after a beautiful Russell pass) before, wait for it, building up a comfortable lead.

A virtually flawless performance from Russell saw Scotland 23-14 ahead going over the hour mark, before one of those “deliberate knock-on in the tackle” cards given against Jack Dempsey saw New Zealand fight back into the game and run out winners.

Lack of concentration during their purple patch (matching the new shirts) meant that Scotland left two or three tries unscored with the ball less than a metre from the line and could have been out of sight. This was so encouraging, but so frustrating. If anything, Doddie deserved a wee slice of history that day and the boys will know it.

The year finished with the fourth match against Argentina and it was, at least, mostly encouraging. Unlike the close tussles in the summer, Scotland blew Argentina away – aided by a red card on the 20 minute mark and the visitors down to 12 men at one point – with Sione Tuipulotu having his best game for Scotland to punch holes all over the defence. Speaking of punching, there were some proper handbags in a test that was packed with drama and saw Jamie Ritchie engaging in some top quality sledging with his opposite number.

As usual Chris Harris was a rock in defence, and as usual did not inspire in attack. His game was summed up by having the ball knocked out of his grasp in the tackle on a break and later almost butchering a 3-on-1 (again) only for the titanic hulk of, er, Darcy Graham to spare his blushes and dive over from close range.

It was the Finn show though, answering his critics with a Player of the Match array of scampers, half breaks and hard to believe offloads that saw him have a hand in all of Scotland’s 7 tries – and very few of those “mercurial” mistakes we still hear about.

Ironically this all had the effect of making Townsend the most secure Northern Hemisphere coach as the year drew to a close.

Who was the Scotland Captain? Jamie Ritchie x 4
Who started at Number 8? Matt Fagerson x3, Jack Dempsey
Who started at 10? Blair Kinghorn x2, Finn Russell x2
Which centre pairings were used: Tuipulotou/Bennett, Redpath/Harris, Tuipulotou/Harris x2
Scotland’s 2022 Autumn Tests Record: W2, L2

RIP Doddie Weir, 1970-2022

The rugby year ended really with the terribly sad news that MND took the “mad giraffe” Doddie Weir from us all too soon, just weeks after his appearance at BT Murrayfield.

Known as a huge character on and off the field, the indomitable way in which he set in about a horrible disease, to not only surpass his initial prognosis but to help make a difference to so many others was awe-inspiring.

The legacy of that work will undoubtedly live on through his family and the amazing work of his My Name’5 Doddie fundraising trust, spearheading new research into the disease and support for sufferers. Please support their work whenever you get a chance.

He will be sorely missed in the world of Scottish rugby, and the rugby community as a whole.

Where Now for Scotland?

For Gregor Townsend there will be little time to sit still over the festive period. There is a lot of work to be done, with the sad possibility that no matter how well he does it, we might still have to battle to avoid the Wooden Spoon and get bumped out at the group stages next year.

In what seemed like an unlikely pairing of two 13s, the use of Harris + Sione (Harrisione Ford anyone? No?) has posed questions for future selection. With his limits in attack, Harris cannot sit on the bench – he starts or not at all. We can’t plan for “if we lose 25 points in the opening quarter and need a damage limitation sub”. Or if we do I’m not watching it.

On the other hand, some combination of Sione or Cam Redpath (or indeed Rory Hutchinson) could work very well for an incisive attacking force in the closing stages. Yes, Argentina were down to 14 (at best) but when Redpath was on in that final game suddenly it wasn’t just Finn they had to close down (which they couldn’t anyway). Huw Jones has finally appeared for Glasgow and he’ll be in the mix too.

Will we be too easy to defend if we are relying on Finn all the time? Pool opponents next year Ireland and South Africa will put all their effort into smothering him and then where are we?

We cannot cope without a spark in midfield, even now that Hoggy has rediscovered his vigour shorn of the captaincy and our wings are magnificent in their own way. Is a Redpath/Harris pairing sufficiently robust to face down, say, the Boks from the start?

It hurts to think about it.

Still, at least we know that new Bath signing Finn Russell is the man at 10. It’s okay Toony, we’re not keeping score (yes we are).

The front row group looks settled with Schoeman/Sutherland and Turner/Brown/Ashman all easy to rotate based on form – assuming the coaching group can recognise such a thing.

At tighthead it is a trickier call, with Zander Fagerson and his wobbly hamstring now out until the start of the Six Nations meaning experimentation will be needed at least in January when Townsend announces his next squad. Might we see call ups for Murphy Walker and Murray MacCallum?

Richie Gray has earned a chance next year with brilliant performances in the autumn and although the question is still “who partners Gray in the second row”, it’s now a different Gray brother – and there’s no clear answer yet.

Ongoing injury worries for Rory Darge and Hamish Watson make back row selection an interesting area too, having played with a pretty settled unit since the spring with the useful addition of Jack Dempsey. Jamie Ritchie did enough as captain during the autumn to suggest the role is his, at least until this time next year. But the more abrasive Luke Crosbie could well come into the mix.

Heading into a World Cup year with big selection questions (especially in the centre and second row), no clear playing style and infrequent wins against anyone aside from England, things are as unsettled as ever.

Such is the life of a Scotland fan.

Who was the Scotland Captain? Stuart Hogg x5, Grant Gilchrist x2, Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie x 4
Who started at Number 8? Matt Fagerson x10, Magnus Bradbury, Jack Dempsey
Who started at 10? Russell x6, Kinghorn x6
Which centre pairings were used in 2022: Tuipulotou/Harris x4, Johnson/Harris x3, Tuipulotou/Bennett x2, Johnson/Bennett x2, Redpath/Harris
Scotland’s 2022 Record: W5, L7

12 Responses

  1. Good Article Rory

    What would your guys centre pairings be?

    I think Harris plays a role in certain games and in other games we are going to need a 13 who can cut teams open (thinking of Ireland and France).

    It concerns me that Harris (somewhat like Jonny Gray) has not really evolved in the past 5 years. We know if a break is made and Harris gets the ball that we in with a good shout of screwing up the try scoring opportunity.

    In saying all that i would start him against England.

    1. For centres I think we need a second distributor at 12, I have always said that’s when we play best. Finn Russell can make time and space for himself (not that he needs much) but having someone else a bit more dangerous outside him gives him even more time to do Finn things.

      Tuipolotu had a very good game against Argentina but its not enough (yet) to convince me he is the answer. For me it’s Redpath or Hutchinson. Form is slightly less important than the style of play they bring, its not just what they do, its what that does for the others around them that’s important IMHO.

      For 13, if I could get some confidence that Harris wasn’t going to butcher every attack he is involved in then he would be a shoe in, I still think his defensive nous is worth his inclusion. Still think Mark Bennett should have got some more game time and will be interesting to see if Huw Jones can come onto some kind of form as we know what he can do.

      Gun to head its Redpath and Harris for me.

      Edit: I didn’t give Tuipolotu consideration at 13 which is probably unfair, does Toonie see him as a 13 though?

    2. Agree actually with the horses for courses approach Neil.

      For suffocating teams like Ireland or South Africa who don’t actually have that many cut-throat attackers I’d be more inclined to play Huw Jones or Mark Bennett. But for a France or New Zealand, I’d want Harris there for stability.

      Harris is an interesting case and a pretty classic curates egg. I think he has evolved his game over the past 3 years; he’s a regular scorer for Gloucester and is now capable of pulling plays like the long miss-pass for Duhan’s try vs Fiji. BUT it’s painfully obvious how unnatural that side of the game is to him and he will never have the quick thinking in attack of some of our more exciting options. I think with his work in defence is very valuable and with Redpath, Hutchinson or Tuipulotu at 12 and our first choice back 3 available, there are enough threats to include him purely for this but with Johnson at 12 or any of other wide options, his shortcomings get shown up quickly.

      Huw Jones has to be in the squad if fit. He just provides a difference we can’t afford to leave out. Witness the ’21 six nations vs Ireland where we weren’t getting anywhere in attack and he comes on and immediately cuts a line for a try. Versatile as well so ideal #23 with Kinghorn or Hastings at #22.

      Bottom line, everyone fit for the world cup:

      12: (1) Redpath (2) Tuipulotu
      13: (1) Harris (2) Jones

      Hutchinson and Bennett first reserves (it will be Johnson though).

  2. Nice piece there, Rory.
    I was at Murrayfield for the All Blacks Autumn Test and really, really felt that at 23-14 up we were going to post our first ever W against them. Disappointing outcome, but there was enough to see on the park to make me feel that we’d recovered from a pretty indifferent 6N.
    I see the forthcoming 6N as a chance to develop a style of play that could get us out of an extremely difficult group at next year’s RWC.

    Don’t get me started on World Rugby’s timing of group seedings!

  3. Good article sir, A very scottish 2022, the year started and finished with Finn Russell showing exactly why he needs to be a fixture at 10. I reckon Finns display v Argentina was his best Scottish performance.
    I’d have Harris no-where near the 23, simply not good enough. I like the Redpath Tuipulotu partnership with Huw Jones in the mix. I think Ben White at 9 gives Finn the best service.
    I’d have Hogg Russell Tuipulotu practising 50-22s, it’s a tactic that gets us to where we want to be.
    We are blessed with Duhan and Darcy, Maitland apart not much in reserve. Not sure I’d have Kinghorn in 23, Hastings better.
    R.Gray our most important forward his line-out expertise absolutely invaluable.
    With the absentees in the back row Dempsey Crosbie Ritchie and Fagerson would be the options.
    Skinner, Schoeman should play, Sutherland and J.Gray/Cummings in squad. Nel and AN Other at in squad at 3 (Walker Rae Berghan? At least initially…) I think Cherry our most dependable hooker but Ashman very promising (all hookers better with R.Gray in the team).

  4. I would have liked, by now, to have a settled team (or at least a settled 23) but it seems we still have doubts about who is our best hooker/locks/flanker/scrumhalf/centres.
    On the plus side, we now know who our best props are, notwithstanding Fagerson’s injury and Nel’s age. Murphy Walker is my bet to take over from either.
    Richie Gray’s form was outstanding (astounding?) and I believe, despite all the naysayers, that his brother is the best balanced partner for him. Cummings, Skinner et al will need to up their game to prove themselves IMO.
    Matt Fagerson has cemented his place as starting 8, but will not be able to rest on his laurels with Dempsey around.
    At least in the backs we have 10,11,14,15 nailed down, and with Kinghorn on the bench have all those positions covered in case of injury.
    On the flanks it is less clear cut, although with Ritchie as captain there is only one spot. Either he plays 6 with Watson or Darge, or plays 7 with Crosbie or Skinner/Bradbury/Dempsey. The good thing is I wouldn’t mind any of those backrow mixes – real competition between quality players.
    Price is no longer sure of his place. Always a good thing, but still not sure whether White, Horne or Vellacott are better. Game management vs speed of service? Experience over pace? Kicking game vs sniping game? Again I don’t really mind as long as whoever comes off the bench gets enough time to prove they can make a difference.
    The centres seem to be a bit of a lottery (tombola?) at the moment. I’ll leave it to others who may know more about those positions, but my preference would be Redpath-Harris. The latter’s nous in defence (not just tackling but organising and leading) is invaluable. If he could learn to catch and pass he’d be world-class! LOL. Whoever is picked though, I want to see that partnership go through the six nations together. All the best centre partnerships flourish thanks to familiarity (Carling-Guscott, D’Arcy-O’Driscoll, etc) but I doubt any of our centres will get the chance to find out more about their partners than their first names.

    1. Agree with the 8s, interesting I thought Dempsey was ok, solid but not spectacular but the piece Scrummo did the other day painted a different picture. I’m not that fussed over the backrow combination they are all very good players, we just need to get the balance right.

      We always seem to have this same problem at 9, the incumbent seems to be out of form but we keep picking them anyway, think back through the years Blair when it should have been Cusiter, Cusiter when it should have been Blair, Blair when it should have been Laidlaw, Laidlaw when it should have been Price.

      Totally agree about familiarity being the best thing for a midfield partnership. I dont think its coincidence when we played some of our best rugby with Finn and either P Horne, Dunbar or Bennett outside, they played together week in week out and it showed.

  5. good article – 2023 fills me with trepidation even though we have some terrific players. Cant see a successful 6 nations or world cup, but will be delighted to be proven wrong.
    The world cup draw is really annoying, as Ireland and South Africa are nearly always too powerful and canny for us,
    Ireland or France will probably contest the 6 nations title – would be good to be not far behind them. Bit worried about am improving Italy and effect of change of management for England and Wales

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