That was a fantastic Guinness Six Nations. A surprise victor, with eight games ending within one score and the result being in the balance after 80 minutes. The culmination of the tournament, ended with both matches changing hands after the clock had gone into the red. France dramatically ended Welsh Grand Slam hopes, and Scotland returning the favour the following Friday, allowing Wales to win the Championship outright. Many have said that it is a poor Welsh side, but while it isn’t of the class of last decade, and they got the rub of the green, they were the best most consistent team in the championship. When they got the breaks, they made sure that they took advantage of them. Their only error was at the death against France, when they sealed off, when there was no real pressure on them. That cost them the Grand Slam, but an error by France against Scotland (even later in that game), ensured that while no GS, a championship was won by Wales.
The tournament was the complete antithesis of what I was expecting based on the Autumn Nations Cup. With hindsight, the Autumn was used by the teams to avoid defeat (and protect ranking) rather than developing a different game plan. The negativity of November has disappeared, to be replaced with a more positive attacking ethos.
Looking at the last two Six Nations tournaments from a Scottish perspective, it was a major case of, if only. Similar to last season, when the two games they lost were games they had the opportunity to win, this season was the same and had the same outcome! Defeat by less than one score in the four matches that they have lost, shows that Scotland are on an upper trajectory. What has been frustrating is that despite winning three of the five matches in both tournaments, they’ve finished 4th. Further positives were the away victories at their bogey venues It is definitely a step in the correct direction after the woes of Japan in 2019. After the Rugby World Cup (RWC), I was firmly in the camp that thought that Gregor Townsend was not experienced enough to take Scotland to the next level. His only main coaching role, having been at Glasgow, which was in the goldfish bowl of Scottish Rugby, and I felt that Vern Cotter was making strides with Scotland, and making them a team that was difficult to beat and felt he should have been given the chance to lead the team to the RWC in Japan. Though whose decision it was to part ways is open to debate, as I’ve heard conflicting reports.
Over the last two years since the RWC 2019 debacle, Scotland’s game plan has evolved from the flamboyant attacking (and often error ridden) approach, which was akin to the career of Gregor Townsend, to a more pragmatic approach based on solid defence, with a more structured (with adventure) attacking platform.
Since that game at Twickenham in 2019, when Scotland came back from 31-7 down to lead going into extra time, only to be pegged back at the death, Scotland have developed (excluding RWC19), a defensive unit to allow them to utilise the attacking prowess that they have. Over the last two years in the Six Nations, they have the best defensive record in the tournament, and this year they have added the ability to score tries.
It all started dramatically at the start of the 2020 competition, with the talismanic Finn Russell, being made persona non-gratis following a difference of opinion over drink limits. While at the time, I thought that it was making a mountain out of a mole hill, I think it allowed the team to develop, as they were no longer seen as a one-man team, where the attacking skill of Russell, overshadowing the attacking development. I do think that Russell is world class, but not relying on him, has been a blessing, as now when he is not at his sparkling best, Scotland still have the wherewithal to win and score tries. Considering the start, and the narrow losses to Ireland and England, the victories against Italy and France showed the resilience that was being developed. Following the COViD enforced break, another side of the development was displayed with the gritty, victory in Llanelli against Wales. So fourth was achieved along with a long awaited away win the Six Nations, outside of Rome.
Now that Scotland had got the monkey of their back with victory in Wales, they followed it up in 2021 with victories in England and France, slowly building momentum towards the RWC in France in 2023. They are in the proverbial ‘Group of Death’ with Ireland and South Africa. To get out of the group they need to have strong defence and attacking skill to unlock their defences, and that will be away from Murrayfield, so it is looking more promising.
Looking at this year’s Six Nations, it really was one that got away. A first victory in London since 1983, which was achieved with a mix of solid pragmatic defence and attack. Much has been said that England didn’t play well, but Scotland controlled the majority of the game, and didn’t allow England to impose the game plan that they wanted. The victory was not expected by anybody outside the camp. I thought that they would be close, but never expected a victory. This was the platform for greater things, and talk of a Triple Crown, or a Championship was mentioned! But then, in typical Scottish style, following a dominant first half against Wales……..
Leading Wales by 14 points at half time, their discipline let them down, by compounding error after error, allowing Wales back into the game. Scotland were in the ascendency at half time, looking sure to build on the victory at Twickenham the week before. But not starting the second half well enough prevented them moving on, and securing back to back victories. Wales, showed their experience and slowly wrestled their way back into the game, and ultimately won, but it was a game that got away from Scotland, as they were still in contention at the end. Following the COViD related cancellation against France, next up was Ireland at Murrayfield. Against the Irish, Scotland, could have won, but it was the poorest of their performances of the Six Nations. Much was said that Ireland didn’t play well, but the fact was, which many people missed, Scotland didn’t either. The fact Scotland came back from 14 to only lose it in the last few minutes, says much about the resolve of the new look Scotland. In the past, not showing the fluency of the previous weeks, Scotland would have succumbed meekly and capitulated and been soundly beaten. The fact they weren’t is a credit to them and shows they have developed a greater mental strength when things are not going for them, which bodes well for the next few years. The rustiness of the performance could be attributed to the cancelled game two weeks previously against France, meaning the Scottish based players hadn’t experience competitive action for four weeks.
As for the Italian game, this again showed the mental development of Scotland! They scored the most points against Italy in the championship and though they conceded a try in first five minutes they kept to their structure and achieved the bonus point and ran in eight tries. What was pleasing was that this was without their first two choice fly half’s, with captain Stuart Hogg deputising in the number 10 shirt for the first 55 minutes. Controlled rugby with the team making the most of their chances and the Italian frailties. Scotland did what they were expected to do and did it well.
Scotland then rounded off their fixtures with the delayed match in Paris and they backed up their other away win, with a victory in Paris, making it four away wins on the bounce in the Six Nations. What was even more pleasing was that it was achieved with a weakened team for Scotland, due to the test match being played outside the international window. That decision was frustrating for Scotland as the rearrangement was not their fault. It was left up to Scotland to negotiate the release of their internationals in England. This only allowed five players being released. This should have been a decision by Six Nations Rugby and the funding for the release should have been met by them. What was more frustrating, was that Scotland in the Autumn released their players to compete in the English Premiership Final. This match occurred in a test window, so Scotland did not have to release the players, but they did without asking for compensation. So double standards were afoot. Also, many of the players not released were either not playing or on the bench for their clubs.
Back to the game, with France knowing what they needed to do to win the championship, it was always going to be a tall ask for Scotland, but they fought well, always keeping France within striking difference and when the opportunities arose Scotland took them. There were two key incidents that allowed Scotland to win. The first at the end of the first half, when instead of taking three points from a Scotland infringement, France went for the lineout, but Scotland nicked it and ended the half only 13-10 down. Then with the clock red at the end of the game, the French tried to build another attack, but were penalised for sealing off (the same offence Wales were pinged for the previous week, which allowed France to stop Welsh GS hopes), and Scotland had a final chance. Following a long series of phases, Scotland created the opportunity that allowed Duhan van der Merwe to crash over and seal a first win in Paris since 1999. It was an end to not just an enthralling match, but also championship. Scotland showed their mettle in the last remnants of the game, showing skills and avoiding the errors that have plagued them in the past. While two fourth places, did not reflect the improvement, the six wins from ten (of which four were away from Murrayfield), showed they are no longer an easy game for any of the other contenders for the Six Nations. This has been a very positive period for Scotland, and as we are just over two years away from the RWC in France, Scotland may just be building as Hogg said after the match in Paris to ‘something special’. On the back of two relatively successful Six Nations, they may just manage it, though what Hogg was meaning, I don’t know.
Now, I just need to get tickets for the Scotland matches for RWC 2023, having twice already failed to get them on release.