Why Scottish rugby is in a very different place a year on from arguably the nation's most humiliating defeat in Yokohama
Scottish rugby has long done a fine line in false dawns and shootings stars, had its quest for sustained glory dashed more often than Robert the Bruce’s cave-dwelling spider, and yet, autumnal hope is blossoming afresh.
From the wreckage of 2019, a bleak Six Nations and an awful World Cup, a new Scotland emerged in 2020. A Scotland that has won four on the spin for the first time in nine years. A Scotland that doesn’t leak tries like a rusty colander. A Scotland with a lust for defending and the gusto to bludgeon the giants of Europe. The Scotland of Jamie Ritchie and Rory Sutherland and Chris Harris, uncompromising beasts of men who play like the whole world is against them and run as though the grass on which they tread has committed some mortal affront to their character.
Scotland conceded five tries and 59 points in the Six Nations, by far their greatest defensive record in 21 campaigns since the tournament’s expansion. Last year, they shipped 17 tries and 125 points; in 2018 those figures were 14 and 128; falling to 14 and 118 in 2017; 13 and 115 in 2016; 12 and 128 in 2015; 15 and 138 in 2014. Not since Eddie Jones’ all-conquering brutes of 2016 has a Six Nations champion conceded fewer tries than Scotland.
As always, the numbers need caveats. We were never going to see another 38-38 Calcutta Cup whopper when Murrayfield resembled a washing machine in this year’s biblical deluge. The brainless red card of French prop Mohamed Haouas springs to mind too, as does the disparate and stupefied nature of Wales in the crowd-less Parc y Scarlets.
Still, the stats are hugely compelling. They point towards a serious shift in style from Gregor Townsend and Scotland, the arrival of new coaches and the recognition that the deep-rooted goal to play “the fastest rugby in the world” was ultimately doomed.
Steve Tandy, the defence specialist who replaced long-serving Matt Taylor, has had praise showered upon him, and quite rightly so. The Welshman’s influence has been undeniably profound, his new system working to fill the pitch and let the jackalers jackal without each player scrapping at every breakdown.
But the evolving game plan and heightened focus on defence has given Tandy the space and the time to do what he needed. Scotland’s defence suffered last year in part because of the way that they played. The numbers were so grim because Scotland, in their hunt to tear teams apart with such ferocious speed, tied themselves in knots and turned over ball. Taylor’s job – and that of forwards coach Danny Wilson – was made harder.
Clearly, Townsend has absorbed the ruthless teachings of 2019 and adapted quickly. Frankly, he had to. Scotland fans, chastened by the mortification of Japan, would not have tolerated a similarly meek 2020.
Townsend has the chance now to build on that success. The Autumn Nations Cup is a prime opportunity to preserve momentum and continue getting messages across.
What Scotland must do now is tilt the balance a back little – not a regression to the bonkerdom of old, but lace their snarling brutality with some of that flair.
Seven tries in five championship games is a modest return for a team with so much attacking weaponry. Sam Johnson, fit again and starting against Italy on Saturday, can help. Huw Jones deserves a crack this autumn for his brilliant club form, even if he has been deployed at full-back. Duhan van der Merwe, who plays ahead of Blair Kinghorn in Florence, is a devilishly unique weapon on the wing. His haul of 11 carries in his international debut against Georgia suggests Townsend is eager for him to seek out work and get hands on ball as often as possible. No sense in having a 6’4 wrecking ball in your arsenal if he is isolated on the touchline.
Attacking incision will be harder, of course, without Finn Russell and Adam Hastings, Townsend’s two front-line pivots. Scotland, by now, are used to missing Russell after the unnecessarily messy three-beer incident left him out of the squad for four of the five Six Nations fixtures. Hastings stepped up and made himself a credible rival, his development as an international fly-half capable of bossing his pack of giants around the park compelling.
Russell is an even more grievous loss now than he was then. His sizzling brilliance at Racing 92, the array of stunts, chips and swagger that he has delivered almost without missing a beat puts him right up there with the best fly-halves in the game.
Losing Russell and Hastings for a significant period of time is the last thing Townsend needs, just as his team are gaining impetus. The burden falls, then, on the squat shoulders of Duncan Weir. The stocky little pivot has craved this opportunity for so long, worked incredibly hard on his game and is playing some of his best stuff at Worcester Warriors. His yearning to play for his country has never dimmed, despite not starting a Test in four years and winning his first cap since 2017 in the 79th minute against France.
We know Weir can put Scotland in the right areas with his boot, and nail his kicks at goal. His running game has never been as average as prevailing opinion would have you believe, but nor is it a strength that comes to him so naturally as it does Russell and Hastings. At Sixways, he is delivering a blend of effervescence and streetsmarts, and his return to the international fold is richly deserved.
Elsewhere, nobody has really nailed down the number eight jersey, so it would be heartening to see Blade Thomson hit the form of which he is undoubtedly capable, or the dynamic Matt Fagerson claim a run of Tests when recovered from injury.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 11, 2020
The back-row tussle on Saturday will be titanic. In Sebastian Negri, Braam Steyn and Jake Polledri, Italy have three of Europe’s most rugged carriers of ball. Polledri, in particular, can lance through teams and scuttle defenders with frightening aplomb, beating more players than anybody else in the Six Nations. Ritchie and Hamish Watson should have the edge at the breakdown, but if the Italian trident get on the loose in open prairie, they will test Tandy’s defence to its very limit.
It is, though, a young Italian team. There are two 20-year-old rookies in the backline. Four of Franco Smith’s tight-five have fewer than 10 caps. The South African is blooding and nurturing a new crop with Polledri its totem. Italy, it seems, are in a state of constant transition, even if the burgeoning brood do at last look cautiously capable of affecting serious change.
Italy have not beaten a Six Nations opponent in five years. Scotland nilled them as recently as February and this is a game they should win. It may be attritional and ugly at times, but it is a fine chance to maintain the feelgood.
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