Just under a year from Rugby World Cup 2023 in France, Scotland have won one and lost one of the Autumn Internationals. I have not been able to watch the game against Australia, but reading reports it sounds like an iffy performance, with no discernible positive points and development since the second half of the Six Nations earlier in the year. Though this performance should be viewed after Australia have played their other Autumn tour opposition.
My thoughts on Gregor Townsend have fluctuated thoughout his tenure, as I feel that Scotland have flattered to deceive and have never put a run of games together. I always thought that Vern Cotter was harshly treated and should have been allowed to see the job though to RWC 2019. The decision to give Townsend the role, I felt was too early in his coaching journey, as he had only coached in the bubble of Scottish Rugby, was to prevent him taking another job outside of Scotland. When you look at International coaches, they migrate to these roles after a range of jobs where they have different problems to solve. This was not the case for Townsend. If he had been at Glasgow now, he would have had different problems, with the South African teams joining and the shake up to the European Cup qualification.
Saturday brought Fiji to BT Murrayfield, with hope that this may bring a performance out of Townsend’s men. The first half was very much same old, same old from Scotland, with no obvious game-plan. They say that Scotland want to play a possession expansive game, but I thought they kicked away too much possession with the kicking from both Adam Hastings and Ali Price being poor. The kicking was not productive for Scotland and gave Fiji plenty of opportunities to counter-attack from deep. I do like the way that Hastings can play, but I felt he was trying to force it too much, with most of his kicks going down the throats of Fiji, so they could run back at Scotland. And run back at Scotland they did. The main concern that I have with Hastings is his tackling, he appeared to tackle too high in occasion, and against Fiji, that won’t bring the opponent down. Offensively he is very good and it was a great dummy for the Scotland score just before half time. However, I think that Blair Kinghorn, and he who must not be named (Finn Russell), are just as capable of that vision. And that is the crux for me. Hastings has more defensive frailties than his 1st 5/8 rivals, especially Russell, who has developed that side of his game since going to Paris. That was probably the only bit of true class that was on display for Scotland. Fiji played as I always thought that they would. In the first half they managed to dominate the breakdown, which allowed them to play the unstructured attack, that make them so potent. Fortunately that score just before the break, gave Scotland some breathing space to be only two points down at half time.
Credit where credit is due, and Scotland came back out and started to show more structure in attack and defence, not allowing the Fijians to dominate at the breakdown. The kicking also improved, especially from Price, and Scotland were able to compete for them, and not allow Fiji front foot ball to return. This was the catalyst for Scotland to win, though the lack of time that Fiji had together prior to the match, may also have had an impact on the outcome. In the end, I felt that the score-line flattered Scotland, as they still seemed to lack the physicality and wherewithal to dominate Fiji.
Moving onto New Zealand this week! They comprehensively put Wales to the sword and racked up 50 points in Cardiff. I can’t see Scotland doing much better this weekend, especially if they replicate the first half on Saturday. Even if they improve, it would have to be dramatic for the avoidance of a Welsh repeat for New Zealand.
And so Russell returns to the fold following the withdrawal of Hastings through injury. I hope that he starts against NZ, as despite what Townsend said about the lack of form, from what I have seen, he was playing well for Racing. This was compounded with his cameo on Saturday, where he turned the game in favour of the Parisian side. He has all the keys in his game, to challenge NZ, and keep them honest. His defence is improving and Scotland will not be any worse off in that area if he starts. For that to happen Townsend would have to concede he may have got it wrong. But, if what has been reported that he was unable to harness Russell, it may be that Russell has to settle for a place on the bench. I hope not (and I am a big Blair Kinghorn fan), but if he is on the bench, and if it’s a big if Scotland are still in with a shout, he’s not a bad option to bring on.
Whatever happens, the game against New Zealand and then Argentina the next week, will have a lot to say about Scotland and Townsend’s chances in RWC 2023.