After victories over Argentina and Tonga and a narrow loss to the All Blacks, here are 10 things Scotland will have learnt from the Autumn Internationals;
1.Vern Cotter is the right man for the job
After a number of turbulent years it seems Scotland have finally found a Head Coach who can take them forward and lead them into a better place than where he picked them up from. Under Scott Johnson previously Scotland has a number of false dawns but ultimately failed to build on much of the early positives, it looks unlikely that this will be the case under Cotter.
There are still a number of things Cotter will have to iron out, but just a few months into his tenure he already seems to be making waves. The side are scoring tries for fun and genuinely look and sound like a cohesive unit. If he can sort out a couple of the old frailties in the side then they will be ones to watch between now and Japan 2019.
2.Scotland are actually worth watching
As hinted about above, this Autumn has shown that Scotland aren’t afraid to throw the ball about a bit and make scoring tries look easy. It has been a long time since I actually looked forward to watching Scotland play, however the last three games, even against the All Blacks have been a breath of fresh air. Five tries in two separate games and a couple against the World Champions isn’t a bad haul.
It’s great to see that Cotter looks like he’s given his side the confidence to play the kind of rugby we know they’ve always been capable of. Greig Laidlaw looked like a new man for large parts of the three games, whilst the likes of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland have always had the potential to get bums off seats. Just imagine what this side could be capable of in dry conditions.
3.There is finally competition for places
Throughout most of the team it seems there is now finally competition for places, despite Scotland only having two professional sides. Cotter had to make a number of changes throughout the three games, however none of them seemed to significantly weaken the side. Fortunately it seems they are now all working towards the same game plan.
This kind of competition for places can only be good for the future of Scottish rugby as no individual will feel entirely comfortable in their shirt right now. This is also ignoring the fact that there are still a number of key players to come back into selection content for the Six Nations. Whatever happens it looks like Cotter will have some big decisions on his hands over the next few months.
4.The front row is still a slight concern
Fortunately it seems Ross Ford has re-discovered some semblance of his form from a few years ago, whilst the starting props look solid. The issue however lies in the replacement options, particularly at hooker and tighthead. Ideally Scotland need to find a couple more international front rowers between now and the World Cup to really compete.
The problem is that in such an abrasive positions it’s almost inevitable that one of more of them will pick up some kind of injury which could leave Scotland a little exposed. Moving Geoff Cross to tighthead may suffice against Tonga but is unlikely to cut it against a side like the All Blacks. Glasgow and Edinburgh should both be told to focus on giving additional experience to potential candidates in these positions.
5.The fly-half debate has finally been settled
Over the last couple of years it looked like the fly-half berth would be fought over by Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir, with Tom Heathcote providing back-up. Fortunately Glasgow’s Finn Russell has really put his hand up over the last three tests and should be the man to lead Scotland in to next year’s World Cup barring any injuries or a catastrophic drop-off in form.
Russell still has much to learn on the international stage, but to a large extent it his youthful enthusiasm that has helped Scotland achieve the performances in recent weeks. He provides a constant threat at the gainline whilst also offering up a tactical kicking and running game that will keep Scotland on the front foot and hopefully scoring tries.
6.The decision making still needs work
Whilst it was great to see Scotland showing ambition over the last few weeks, there are still a couple of decision making issues. The most obvious of which was when they tried to run the ball out from their own 22 against the All Blacks. Whilst this may work at club level, when you’re playing top international sides you need to be smarter than that.
Throwing the ball around and running 80 metres may entertain fans, but it’s unlikely to win you international games. Instead Scotland need to try to develop better decision making skills and have leaders across the pitch who decide when to kick and when to run. It will be moments like this that will dictate the success of this side over the next few weeks.
7.Tries are not going to be a problem
11 tries in three games seemed nothing more than a pipe dream for Scottish fans not so long ago, especially during some of the more recent Six Nations snooze fests. It seems however that all that has changed as Scotland currently look like they could score tries against even the meanest of defences. It looks unlikely that this will change anytime soon.
The great thing is that playing this kind of rugby, and winning will hopefully attract more fans to games which is no bad thing for Scottish rugby. With the likes of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser in the side there is no end to the potential try scorers, the only issue now is trying to fit them into the team.
8.Penalties are still an issue
The age old issue of giving penalties away, especially inside their own half looks like one that will continue to haunt Scotland. The problem is that when they invite pressure on themselves like they did when trying to run from their own tryline against the All Blacks, it is inevitable that these kinds of issues will present themselves.
If Scotland can cut down on these penalties then they will be in a much stronger position to contest games with the worlds top sides. If they can nail their tactical kicking game, particularly from inside their own half this could help to reduce these issues, however it is an issue that needs to be looked at separately as well as this is possibly the sides biggest failing.
9.The defence still needs work
For large parts of the All Blacks game the Scottish defence stood up heroically as they have done in previous years, however there still appear to be a number of niggly issues that cost them dearly. The failure to bring down Victor Vito for the All Blacks try was a particular low as players were bowled over and never really looked like stopping him.
That said the way they held out on their own tryline at times was nothing short of magnificent, and bodes well for the future. With a little more leadership in defence and someone like Laidlaw or Russell taking control of clearance kicks then this could make all the difference. If they can nail this side of the game they will cause teams some serious issues.
10.There is still some experimenting to be done
Whilst it looks like much of the starting line-up has now been nailed down, there is still plenty of opportunity for players to put their hands up for selection. There are plenty of combinations Cotter can trial to see how they perform; should Gilchrist be given a shot in the second row, and how do the likes of Dave Denton fit into the back row.
Equally in the backs the return of Matt Scott could cause some selection dilemmas in the midfield whilst there will be competition for the wing sports from Visser, Maitland, Seymour and Fife ahead of the Six Nations. Whilst it’s unlikely Cotter will be making too many changes it would be naive to think that he has nailed the side over the last three games.
What else do you think Scotland will have learnt from the last three games?