The article will summarise the development aims for Scotland’s tour of the Americas this summer. Taking into consideration the time-line to the Rugby World Cup 2019 and their results since Gregor Townsend took charge.
Areas for improvement
To identify Scotland’s areas for improvement let’s consider three typical game scenarios and the team performances to date:
- Unexpected Situations (injuries to key personnel, yellow cards, weather conditions, etc.)
Scotland wear the Underdog tag well and with strong attacking threats in the loose can always spring a surprise. Key to this is Scotland’s strong turnover threat coupled with good try to minutes of possession stats. With particularly good showings against New Zealand, Australia and England the team already seem well set up for this type of match.
Favourites and Unexpected Situations
In both Favorites and Unexpected Situations, Scotland can struggle. This appears to be due to an inability to dictate the match both in terms of playing structure and match tempo.
In this year’s Six Nations matches against France, Italy and Wales the Scottish team fell behind early conceding multiple first-half tries in quick succession. In these games, Scotland could have benefited from switching to a more conservative gameplan for brief periods. This could have stifled opposition momentum, enable the team to regain composure, and reduce error count.
Additionally, as a smaller rugby nation, Scotland’s lack of depth is manifested in a less impactful bench. Injuries to key positions are likely to be more sorely felt than countries with bigger playing pools.
Greg Laidlaw’s boot and a strong maul threat are two areas which Scotland have been able to lean on in tight situations. However, a more comprehensive repertoire of game management strategies is required to be tried and tested ahead of RWC 2019. For example, few teams have a robust drop goal threat that arguably differentiates Ireland and New Zealand from the rest of world rugby at present.
Thankfully, the fixture list for 2018 offers good opportunities to develop some of Scotland’s weaknesses highlighted above and is well timed ahead of RWC 2019.
Scotland’s tour of the Americas arguably provides three opportunities to simultaneously test a ‘favourites’ tag and a dodgy away record. Three wins from three should be the only respectable result if Scotland is to continue on an upwards trajectory. The opportunity to rest key personnel ahead of the long World Cup run in and assess backup options will no doubt be taken. As an example, Hamish Watson is already guaranteed to be rested with elective shoulder surgery being taken now to provide a clear run at the 18/19 season.
Summer Test priorities
Develop front five go forward
Due to injuries, Scotland have used a wide combination of props since Townsend took over and a variety of supporting locks to the ever-present and industrious Jonny Gray. The team need to begin to settle on a first choice front 5 with Gray and hooker Stuart McInally the individuals whose starting places seem assured. A settled front 5 during the summer tests will ensure it can begin to develop a cohesion that enables greater individual decision making, invention, and ultimately greater go forward threat particularly in tight areas.
The list of recently used props is long and Townsend needs to find a blend of mobility, solidity and ballast from: Gordon Reid (31yrs, 32caps), WP Nel (31, 22), Darryl Marfo (27, 3), Simon Berghan (27, 8), Allan Dell (26, 10), Alex Allan (26, 4), Jamie Bhatti (24, 8), Zander Fagerson (22, 16), Murray McCallum (22, 1).
Of some comfort will the increased solidity of the Scottish scrum during the Six Nations which in recent years has been a major Achilles heel for the team. A more focused attacking threat from the Scottish forwards should help create additional space out wide for Scotland’s dangerous backs and also provide an improved ability to control the tempo of the match.
Back row backup
With Barclay and Wilson captain and vice-captain respectively and Watson and Denton (from the bench) both strong presences during the Six Nations campaign, Scotland’s jackaling back row looks to be in rude health. However, injuries in this area and Scotland could be exposed as evidenced by Cornell Du Preez’s listless showing against Wales. Players who may feature include John Hardie (29) and Magnus Bradbury (22) recalled to the Scotland training squad midway through the Six Nations following off the field issues. Luke Hamilton (26) might be given game time following his appearance off the bench against the All Blacks in November, and potential ‘bolter’ Matt Fagerson (19) may debut.
Finn Russell, Pete Horne and Huw Jones played the majority of Six Nations minutes. The squad will be bolstered by Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett and Ritchie Vernon returning from long-term injuries and competition from recent call-ups Chris Harris and Nick Grigg. Test match game time for the injury returnees and a decision on the optimal 12 to augment Huw Jones’ creativity in wider channels is of primary importance here.
At standoff, Townsend may want to assess the relative merits of Pete Horne and Adam Hastings as a backup to Russell, although the limited time for Hastings to be brought up to Test match level may mean Horne gets an extended spell in the 10 jersey.
Other noteworthy items
With a move to Racing 92 in the summer and the additional physical demands of playing Top 14 next season, Russell may only feature against Argentina. It will be interesting to see if he can develop more control at Racing 92 and remove erraticism from his game.
Back-3 more of the same
Townsend has already been able to test back up options to the first choice combination of Maitland, Seymour and Hogg. Blair Kinghorne, Byron McGuigan and Lee Jones have made important contributions when called upon. However, additional Test match minutes will be helpful to improve their all-round game at this level. Maitland has already proved capable of providing good cover for Hogg at fullback against Australia in the Autumn although an injury to Hogg would no doubt be a big loss given his growing contributions as a second receiver and as a positional kicker.
4 Autumn Tests
It may have gone under the radar but it is important to note Scotland will play an additional Autumn test against Wales on the 3rd of November prior to matches against Fiji, South Africa and Argentina. Whilst Wales’ schedule of four 2017 Autumn Test matches was criticised at the time as being excessive their 2nd place showing during the 2018 Six Nations (despite injuries to key personnel) indicates an increased squad depth that Scotland will hope to replicate.
Given the lacklustre display at the Principality Stadium in the opening round of the Six Nations, Scotland will have a great opportunity to avenge this display and it gives the Scottish team the rare opportunity to play an away game during the Autumn fixture calendar.
U18 Six Nations Festival
With Scotland winning the inaugural U18 Six Nations Festival on Sunday by beating England, France and Ireland there are positive signs in the resurgence of the country’s talent pool. Scotland will hope the Tour of the Americas enables emerging talent to stand up in a similar manner.
Author: Dougie Thoms