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FEATURE Scotland fly under the radar on voyage of discovery

Scotland fly under the radar on voyage of discovery
2 weeks ago

On the face of it, a summer tour of the Americas is not a pulse-quickening prospect for Scottish rugby folk. Neither Canada nor the USA, Scotland’s first two opponents, qualified for last year’s World Cup and while Chile and Uruguay are coming nations, they hardly command the box-office appeal of the big four from south of the Equator. But maybe, in a World Cup year resembling a wicked physical and emotional hamster wheel for those who have negotiated it, that is no bad thing.

Gregor Townsend will heavily rotate his team over the next four weekends, though he has resisted any temptation to rest too many of his big dogs. There is no need to take Finn Russell on a tour such as this, or Zander Fagerson, who is Scotland’s most valuable forward. Similarly, nothing is to be gained from bringing venerable locks Grant Gilchrist and Richie Gray on such a voyage. Jack Dempsey has spent a year running through brick walls in both hemispheres and Darcy Graham is still working his way back from the groin injury which obliterated his Six Nations. The little Hawick sprite has been chewing up the metres on the Hive Stadium paddock these past few weeks.

Zander Fagerson
Zander Fagerson has long been established as Scotland’s first-choice tight-head prop (Photo Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Blair Kinghorn has just won a European double with Toulouse and needs the summer off. The full-back has yet to lose a game for the iconic Rouges et Noirs and doused in champagne, with two medals around his neck (the first of his career, aged 27), a stack of Euros in his bank account and the French sun beating down upon his back, you wonder how much he regrets leaving Edinburgh mid-season. Ben White, too, was not considered as his first full term at Toulon ended only a fortnight earlier than Kinghorn’s.

Still, of the 23 who took on Ireland in the final Six Nations match, 13 are touring. Toss in Luke Crosbie, injured in the opening round, Ben Healy and Jamie Ritchie, who were in and out of the team, and Sione Tuipulotu, crocked against England, and more familiar names appear on the roster.

Townsend has taken plenty of his newly crowned URC kings too. Fifteen Glasgow Warriors are included in the 37-strong squad. These are heady times for the Scotstoun lot, fresh from carving their mark in national sporting folklore. The Warriors achieved what no Scottish side has before them. Their awesome victory at Loftus is the greatest club triumph in Scottish rugby history; the scenes of joy so pure and special precisely because they come along so rarely.

What might the glory do for the Scottish game? When Glasgow won the old Pro12 in 2015, the hungry native core who propelled their rise would shift the dial for Scotland

The Fagerson boys weeping after withstanding the Bulls last-stand siege on the away line. Duncan Weir losing control of his limbs in the technical area. Kyle Steyn bearhugged by his father Rory, once Nelson Mandela’s head of security and a useful liaison when Glasgow visit South Africa. Franco Smith, typically a picture of stoicism in public, beaming like a child on Christmas morning.

What might the glory do for the Scottish game? When Glasgow won the old Pro12 in 2015, the hungry native core who propelled their rise would shift the dial for Scotland. The Russells and the Hoggs and the Grays; Townsend himself at the helm. A powerful culture which outshone that of the national team, but eventually took root at the highest level. Scotland were wooden spooners two months before Glasgow’s utopia in Belfast. Then they began to win Six Nations matches. Nobody was sated any longer by seeing off Italy or mugging England.

Stephen Varney
Scotland let a winning position slip from their grasp in a disastrous loss in Rome back in March (Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Federugby via Getty Images)

Still, all these years later, damaging perceptions gnaw at the Scots. The notion of psychological frailty; brittleness when the pressure cranks up and machine-like execution is required. That intangible phenomenon is up for debate. What is not, is Scotland’s maddening quest for consistency. This year’s Six Nations summed up their nature – as capable of combusting in a belch of self-inflicted misery as they are of beating any side in the world when on their game.

We hoped – we believed – Scotland were past the kind of oscillating head-wreck that transpired in Rome, or in the second half in Cardiff. In that regard, Glasgow’s success must be a game-changer. Scotland has a club side which has learned to win in the most ruthless environs; which has melded devastating elan to close-quarter brutality and found a recipe to obtain precious silverware. Thomond Park conquered; Loftus sacked. Adversity and strife peppering them like strafe. Scotland has a European and Top 14 champion and a couple of Premiership winners to unleash now.

Max Williamson was immense on Glasgow’s road to greatness. He’s a champion aged 22. How many Scots of any era can lay claim to that? Smith has taken to calling his lock ‘Bakkies’, a homage to rugby’s ultimate enforcer. Gregor Brown and Jamie Dobie and Nathan McBeth have contributed handsomely to a winning environment. Euan Ferrie and Alex Samuel are not on tour but each came of age this season.

Williamson, in particular, is a terrific prospect for Townsend. Gilchrist is 34 next month and Gray will turn 35 a few weeks later. His younger brother Jonny has been injured for an age. Scotland need fresh blood in the engine room and Williamson has the mongrel as well as the set-piece nous to provide it. Ewan Johnson is another who carries some intrigue; 6ft 8ins and well over 120KG, who has learned his trade in the ruthless French waters, first with Racing 92 and their Galacticos. Johnson is 25 now and played 16 games for Oyonnax last season.

Townsend will get a closer look at Gus Warr and Arron Reed, though you fancy the Sale Shark he would secretly have prized most was Tom Roebuck, now committed to England

Townsend has a slew of hookers. George Turner is off to Japan, URC try hound Johnny Matthews has not been chosen and Gregor Hiddleston left out. Patrick Harrison has been desperately underused by Edinburgh but will win his first cap this month. A sheep farmer from Peebles, Harrison has terrific dynamism and a bloody-mindedness about the way he operates. Sean Everitt will give him more exposure next season.

Robbie Smith has been on the fringes of Northampton’s Premiership surge and that is a welcome boost. Dylan Richardson of the Sharks played superbly when fit; a thoroughbred athlete who has waited close to three years between his first and second cap.

So Scotland do not want for quality rakes. Where Townsend needs depth is at tighthead prop, where an injury to Fagerson is grounds for John Swinney to declare a state of national emergency. Elliot Millar-Mills was playing third division rugby not so long ago but did remarkably well when called upon this Six Nations and was a regular fixture in Northampton’s title run. Millar-Mills is 32, though, rendering him uncertain for the next World Cup. The Premiership winner took Will Hurd’s spot on the eve of the tournament when the Leicester man went down. Hurd has his chance now. So does Murphy Walker, the next cab off the domestic rank but ravaged by injuries. Walker is 24 and has played only 565 minutes of club action.

Townsend will get a closer look at Gus Warr and Arron Reed, though you fancy the Sale Shark he would secretly have prized most was Tom Roebuck, now committed to England. Warr steered the Sale ship magnificently when Faf de Klerk left and Raffi Quirke was sidelined. Reed is in the Graham mould with blistering top-end gas.

The back-three jostling is one of the tour’s most fascinating elements. Steyn, for instance, does not have the transfixing footwork of Graham nor the sheer brawn of Duhan van der Merwe, but his skillset is arguably more complete than either’s. The Glasgow captain has every necessary tool in his arsenal; a model of consistent excellence and dependability.

So Townsend must soon make a choice: do without one of his blockbuster wingers, or leave out the most rounded. Does he back the game-breaking Van der Merwe, who can score tries beyond the reach of almost any winger in world rugby, but whose deficiencies are well-documented and who the real power nations, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa, have routinely nullified? Or does he plump for Steyn, who might not smithereen eight defenders on a sixty-yard dash, but will cumulatively make more positive contributions, offer superior leadership and commit fewer errors?

Ruaridh Jackson, the former Scotland fly-half, posited the following after Glasgow sank Munster in the URC semi: “Something I’ve said for a long time but wonder if more people agree now. Kyle Steyn is better than Duhan van der Merwe. Only thing Van der Merwe can do better is score the odd freak try. Scotland back-three should be Graham, Steyn, Kinghorn and bring Van der Merwe on against tired defences…

“I think Steyn’s overall attack is better. Work rate off the ball, linking play etc. Duhan spends 90% of the time running sideways and scores a freak try every so often. If I’m a coach I can trust Steyn to be seven out of 10 every game. Duhan is a three or a 10. I know my preference.”

We haven’t mentioned Kyle Rowe, seamlessly assimilated to the Warriors way. Or stocky Ross McCann, a sevens Olympian who will join Edinburgh next season. Most exciting of all is young Harry Paterson, the Edinburgh full-back pitched in to his first international a few hours before kick-off when Steyn’s wife went into labour. Later that day, Paterson scythed open Shaun Edwards’ France defence to put White over for the opening try. The 23-year-old plays with a fearless edge; wonderfully unfazed by whatever pro rugby chucks at him.

There are established faces returning to the fold. Adam Hastings has finally rid himself of a truly heinous spree of ailments. Jamie Ritchie issued a snarling response to his omission from several matchday squads, finishing Edinburgh’s player of the year and the top jackaler in the URC. The irrepressible Tuipulotu and Huw Jones are both involved but in Matt Currie and Stafford McDowall, Townsend has prime midfield representation from each pro-team.

The coach is awarding ten first caps on Saturday night in Ottawa. Rory Sutherland has more (30) than the rest of the starting XV combined. The backline have only eight between them. Five of the eight replacements will make their international bow. None of Townsend’s key units will have played any men’s rugby together.

The Canadian game is in a parlous state but there’s an obvious risk to throwing in so many debutants. In Townsend’s first months in the job back in the summer of 2017, he took his team to Fiji for the final match of their tour. They’d cruised past Italy and, more notably, taken care of the Wallabies by then. Townsend shuffled his team, Scotland were battered and several of those selected banished to the international doldrums. It felt like penance. By and large, though, those men were experienced campaigners, not Test rookies. Townsend expected more from them than he will demand of his charges seven years on.

While Ireland wage war in South Africa, England lock horns with the All Blacks and Wales and Australia seek the momentum each craves so dearly, Scotland will fly under the radar, and Townsend will learn plenty.


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1 Comment
Barry 18 days ago

Good old Gregor. Still holding them back.

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