With the dust settled on Scotland’s 2016 Six Nations it’s time to take stock of the team’s fortunes, relative progress and review the good, the bad and the ugly of the campaign.
Rarely in recent times has there been such an up-swell of confidence leading into the Championship than following Scotland’s heroics at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. For the first time in over a decade there were whispers of hope, a faint whiff of expectation and a general feeling that this may finally be the new dawn we’ve all been praying for.
— RBS 6 Nations (@rbs_6_nations) March 19, 2016
To an opposition fan Scotland’s 4th place finish may not seem like much to shout about and, sure enough, the Scotland players, staff and fans will have hoped for more. But when you consider the fact that, since the the revised tournament began in 2000, the men in blue have been locked in a seemingly never-ending battle with Italy to avoid the Wooden Spoon, this is actually quite a result.
It’s not just the placing that may flatter to deceive. The loss ratio does indeed outweigh the win but, whilst history will only remember the games against England, Wales and Ireland as losses, when you look a little closer you see that in every game Scotland were within a score or two of coming out victors.
[blockquote author=”Jeremy Guscott” pull=”normal”]I hope this campaign is the tipping point between Scotland being a bottom-half side and one that challenges for one of the top-three positions every year.[/blockquote]
That may seem like small beer to the more expectant fan among us, however that’s simply not been the case in the past. Last year Vern Cotter’s men were thumped 40 points to a measly 10 by the Irish at Murrayfield. And in the previous season Wales had demolished Scotland by a margin of 48 points.
The 2014 rout by Wales seems like a distant memory
[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]”This year Scotland’s biggest losing margin was just 10 points in last weekend’s game against Ireland”.[/blockquote]
A few little differences here and there and Scotland could well have been in the top half of the table and potentially challenging for the title itself.
Imagine if Finn Russell had held onto his intercept against England. Stuart Hogg would surely have run the length and scored under the posts giving Scotland a famous 16-15 victory in the opening Calcutta Cup match. The confidence from that win alone could have been the difference.
Finn Russell kicks an intercept with Stuart Hogg on his shoulder. Everything that’s wrong with northern hemisphere rugby
— Rúaidhrí O’Connor (@RuaidhriOC) February 6, 2016
Then there was the George North try for Wales in round 2. If just one of the 4 defenders had turned outwards then Greig Laidlaw’s men may well have made it 2 from 2.
George North’s solo try was the difference that day
Shoulda woulda couldas are famous in Scottish rugby circles and have been the sole sustenance for fans starved of success for the past decade and a half, but the margins really are getting smaller and the results closer. There is a feeling that this group of players are finally starting to close the gap between them and the top teams that has existed since the game went pro.
Thankfully we don’t have to indulge in fantasy too much as Scotland recorded two brilliant victories over France and Italy, and after the first two close defeats how they were needed.
The Victory was a well deserved one for the players and fans alike
The win against Italy was far from the perfect performance, there were frailties in defence and lapses of concentration, but when they did string it together those 50/50 passes came off and Scotland scored some stunning tries.
Both forwards and backs are scoring scintillating tries
All of the scores came from quick ball and the oft criticised Greig Laidlaw has to take a lot of credit for each of them. In the first game against England his pass was far too ponderous and you get the feeling Cotter may have asked him to ship it out with a little more gusto and trust in outside back to be ready. This fast play is, after all, Scotland’s traditional style and suits a nation that struggles to produce the kind of bruisers England, France and Italy consistently churn out.
Passes didn’t come much crisper than Gary Armstrong’s
That win gave Scotland the much needed confidence they had been searching for and you could feel a collective sigh of relief from every fan at home and way in Rome. With the Wooden Spoon effectively avoided at the tournament mid point they had everything to win and nothing to lose.
Next up the French who had been a bit all over the place since their World Cup humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks. It’s a tired cliché but nobody knew which French team would show up and, despite their shaky start against Italy, their team was packed full of players from Europe’s top clubs.
Underestimate the French at your peril
The opening signs looked ominous with Guilhem Guirado going over for a very well worked try after just 4 minutes on the clock. It’s a testament to the belief of the squad that they didn’t give up as they would have in the past and, following a pair of Laidlaw penalties, they were rewarded with a Stuart Hogg try thanks in large part to Peter Horne’s incisive running.
This was quickly followed up by a spectacular solo try from the find of the tournament Duncan Taylor. If anything typified the confident approach of the squad it was his decision to tap and go from well behind the half way line. It’s great to see him bringing his Saracens form to the international stage.
Duncan Taylor showed a huge amount of confidence and endeavour
The teams traded tries with the game looked finely balanced at 21-18 with 15 minutes to go. This is the point that Scotland had been fading out of games before and it would have taken a brave man to bet on the outcome. But again Scotland showed manful defence and refused to rest on their laurels meeting the French up front and coming off better. It was then that Stuart Hogg showed the kind of class not seen since the ‘Toonie Flip’ to put Tim Visser in at the corner.
Stuart Hogg does it again
This was a famous victory and Scotland’s first over the French in a decade. It wasn’t just the scoreline that impressed the fans and pundits alike, it was the multiphase play, changing of the point of attack, the winning of collisions and scrum dominance that made people really sit up and pay attention. This was arguably Scotland’s most complete performance in a generation. It was also Scotland’s first back-to-back victory in the 6 Nations since 2013.
At last something to shout about
So, following the slow start against England, it seemed like there was a definite upward curve in performances with a misfiring Ireland the only thing standing in the way of the a trinity of wins and a potential highest ever 2nd place finish in the 6 Nations. But, as we now all know, that wasn’t to be and a streetwise Ireland out-muscled and outplayed Scotland in all the key areas of the game. Nonetheless Scotland were still in the game until the very end and, were it not for some dubious refereeing decisions and two yellow cards, a victory may still have been possible.
Many feel John Barclay was hard done by
So whilst the performance may have been a fair bit lower than the week before, there’s a lot of positives to be taken from the fact that Scotland were still in with a shout until the end. They say the sign of a good team is winning when they play badly, Scotland didn’t manage that but it probably shouldn’t have been so close.
[small_title title=”END OF TERM GRADE”]
Nothing about this Six Nations was perfect for any of the teams, least of all Scotland. But perfect isn’t what this team is looking for, at least not yet.
First of all they needed to show that they could match the top teams in the key facets of play. For the most part they did that and even exceeded expectations in the scrum and out wide.
Then they needed to show that they could last the 80 minutes. Eddie Jones harped on (correctly it turned out) about the fact that Scotland score 80% of their points in the first half hour. But after that chastening opening performance, the men in blue showed that they could stick to their guns and were in every other game until the very last.
Winning was the next task at hand and after the Italians had been dispatched they needed to back it up and show some degree of consistency. They did that with aplomb and the France game showed new levels of maturity and glimpses of what this group of players are really capable of.
Key players are bringing a winning mentality
Which leads us on to the players themselves. Early signs from the Pro12 were of a Rugby World Cup hangover and many of the emerging stars looked battle weary having had no real break since the summer of 2014. Granted every team in the Championship could say the same, but no other team has as shallow a pool of talent as Scotland. Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg weren’t playing particularly well for Glasgow, Bair Cowan and Sean Maitland were struggling with Premiership bottom feeders London Irish, and the dynamo that is WP Nel looked overworked at Edinburgh under Alan Solomons.
Solomons isn’t known for his squad rotation
Add to that the tournament injuries of Scotland poster boys David ‘tries are overrated’ Denton, Matt Scott, Jonny Gray and Finn ‘the robot’ Russell, and it could have been a disaster.
Thankfully key players rose to the occasion and guys like Nel, Hardie, Taylor, Laidlaw and, in particular, Stuart Hogg found their form as the tournament went on.
[blockquote author=”Gavin Hastings” pull=”normal”]”There are so many players I see, they don’t seem to realise how much time they have but that certainly doesn’t apply to Stuart. He’s always got time on the ball and I think that’s the hallmark of a great player.”[/blockquote]
It was also a welcome return to the fold for fan favourite and well know agitator of opposition and coach alike, John Barclay to the fold. One part of the ‘Killer B’s’ is well and truly back and has made the 6 shirt his own with a slew of turnovers and a lovely try against Italy – which leaves one wondering what might have been had Vern Cotter plucked for him in his final Rugby World Cup squad.
John Barclay has been reborn in Wales at the Scarlets
Any optimism must be measured though because there are still some clear areas of concern. The 2nd row combinations of Gray/Gray and Gray/Swinson looked very quiet throughout the tournament. You can’t help feeling that Swinson is a littler undersized and underpowered for international rugby. It came as a surprise to many that one of the Toolis brothers weren’t called up to add their considerable size and ball handling ability to the team. Then there’s the never-ending injuries of Grant ‘the glass man’ Gilchrist‘, hopefully his rumoured move to Toulon will help reinvigorate the career of Vern Cotter’s original captain.
Poor Gilchrist spend more time on the physio bench than the field
In the front row there’s not yet like for like backup for either Nel or Dickinson. Rory Sutherland showed up well against Ireland with some barnstorming runs, but young Zander Fagerson looks like he needs a bit more time in the crucible of the Glasgow Warriors front row. Thankfully Stuart McInally looked assured and full of running in every time he came on and, at only 25, he’s the hooker successor in waiting at both Edinburgh and for Scotland.
TRIES A PLENTY
With 11 tries under their belt Scotland scored more in this tournament than they have since it became 6 back in 2000. It wasn’t so long ago that Scotland went 14 months without a try at Murrayfield in the dark years of the noughties, so this really is something to shout about. Most of them were scored in open play and the backs are some of the most dangerous in the Northern Hemisphere.
THE SCRUM IS A ROCK
Gone are the days of the Scotland eight free-wheeling backwards. With a strong base to play off the backs can do what they do best. The classy Edinburgh front row of Nel, Ford and Dickinson show what playing together week-in-week-out can achieve and if Ross “can’t hook won’t hook” Ford decides to change the habit of a lifetime, then Scotland should expect to win every ball on their own put in.
A PLAGUE OF CENTRES
Scottish centres are like buses, you wait decades for one decent one to come along and you get a half dozen. It will warm the hearts of many a fan to see that Scotland now have 4 top class centres to choose from and, when he inevitably refinds his form, there’ll be quite a battle for the 13 shirt between Bennett and Taylor for the outside centre berth. That’s not to mention the ongoing tussle for the 12 shirt between Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar. Add in Peter Horne (who looked better at 10 than Duncan “don’t call me Frodo” Weir), Richie Vernon, the promising Chris Dean and the soon to be qualified Kiwi born Phil Burleigh, and there’s an abundance of riches.
When you think about how long the team’s star players have been around you’d be forgiven for thinking this is an old squad. The average age is actually just 26, and that’s significantly skewed by the front row for whom age is usually a blessing. Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor, Sam Hidalgo Clyne, Duncan Weir and Jonny Gray are all regular starters and are all under 25. Most of the rest of the current squad are all the right side of 30 and, barring injury, should all be available for years to come. Factor in the next generation of future stars like Rory Sutherland, Blair Kinghorn, Zander Fagerson, Rory Hutchinson, Scott Cummings, Adam “I’m not my dad” Hastings, and Mitch Eadie, and you’ve got the makings of formidable future.
THE POWER VACCUM
If Scotland are to challenge for top honours then they need to be able to knock teams backwards. Just look at the games against Ireland and England to see that they’re too often coming off second best. In the Gray brothers, Nel, Denton and Strauss they have some seriously athletic beef, but there just isn’t that go to Vunipola/Stander style player that can bully players and send them flying. For a while Josh Strauss looked to be that man, but this season he’s struggled to find his best (maybe it’s the beard?), and the rest of the backrow is small by international standards. So far there doesn’t seem to be anybody else capable of filling that role, but perhaps the bullocking Magnus Bradbury will one day get there. Until then this will be a major cause for concern amongst the Scotland coaching staff.
START AS THEY MEAN TO GO ON
In almost every game this championship Scotland have started the slower team. Whether it’s concentration, self belief, nerves or just ring rust accumulated week on week only they can tell, but it sure as hell makes it difficult to win when you go down a score or two early doors. Hopefully the confidence from the two wins this term will encourage the players on the summer tour of Japan, because if they show the determination we’ve seen from them in the latter stages of games at the very start, they will start to get on top in the physiological battle.
PENALTIES MEAN POINTS
A lot is written about the fact that some teams play the referee better than others and it remains an ever-present problem for Scotland that they seem to consistently get on the wrong side of the man in the middle. It was only against France that Scotland seemed to get the 50/50 calls, the rest of the time they were punished from pillar to their own posts. This was reflected in the fact that Scotland got the most yellow cards (4) of any team in the competition, two of which pretty much cost them the game against Ireland. We can all complain until we’re bluer in the face about bad refereeing decisions and the curse of ‘he who shall not be named’, but as the old sayings go “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye” and “you’re the wee hen that never layed away”. We need to stop complaining and Greig Laidlaw needs start figuring out how to get them on side.
Overall the 2016 Six Nations has been a leap forward for the Scotland team with 2 wins and 3 narrow losses. It would take a cold heart not to be warmed by Scotland’s evolving style under Vern Cotter (the big man even mustered a smile!).
The team are young, are growing in confidence and as soon as they learn to win away from home you feel they’ll turn the close losses in victories.
As Scottish rugby supporters it’s rare we have something to shout about and reason to be optimistic, so be proud.
How do you think they did? Let us know in the comments below.
Credit: RBS 6 Nations