If we were to sum up Scotland’s form in recent seasons, “relatively ok, although potential to do much better.” A classic line given by school teachers to summarise an average student.
Some might argue that the word average shouldn’t be associated with a team like Scotland, after all they have an array of talent within their ranks. Leading from the front Captain Gregg Laidlaw who is one of the best scrum-halves when it comes to game management. Fly-Half Finn Russell is shortlisted for European Rugby Player of the Year. Talisman Stuart Hogg is the most dangerous player in open space in World Rugby. Centre Huw Jones has potential to be world class. Hamish Watson is in my personal opinion is the most talented open-side flanker in rugby, along with a solid forward pack. Young guns Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings are talents for the future also who are impressing this season.
A very impressive Edinburgh side under Richard Cockerill managed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup along with rivals Glasgow Warriors. Both Scottish clubs also have good positions in both of their conferences in the PRO14.
Since 2014, Scottish Rugby has been part of a quite positive and systematic improvements which has benefitted Scottish Rugby on both a domestic and international level. New Zealander Vern Cotter took charge in 2014 as he begun this transition period. With a wealth of experience as Head Coach of Clermont Auvergne for 8 years, winning league silverware in France and leading the club to their first European Cup final in 2013.
Cotter’s influence was first noticed in the 2015 World Cup in England as he managed to qualify out of a tough group with South Africa, USA, Samoa and a historic Japan side. They lost in the quarter-final stage versus Australia in highly controversial defeat thanks to an incorrect penalty given to Australia in the dying moments of the game by referee Craig Joubert. Cotter finished his last two Six nation’s with impressive victories at home against Ireland, France and Wales. He managed the home/away double over Italy.
In June 2017, Gregor Townsend took charge after previously coaching Glasgow Warriors and leading them to the then PRO12 title in 2015. Large numbers of his Glasgow line-up made up the bulk of the Scottish squad, so it was only fitting to give him the job.
Townsend began with two victories out of three in the summer tour that year. Most notably beating Australia down-under, but they lacked consistency as they lost to Fiji. In 2018, Townsend had a relatively successful first Six Nations Championship winning all his home games off the back of a close five-point defeat against New Zealand a couple of months before. Scotland won four out of their last seven tests heading into the Six Nations Championship this year.
Scotland opened their campaign with a win over Italy, in a dominant first half display where they ultimately took their foot off the gas in the last 20 minutes of the second half. In round 2, they were beaten by a fragile Irish team that were in my view there for the taking. They would have been disappointed to not even get a losing bonus point. It hasn’t been a perfect start for the Scots and their trait of inconsistency comes to mind again. They still have three games left and a lot to play for.
Here’s the dilemma, Gregor Townsend has many selection headaches due to injuries to key players Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones, Finn Russell, backrows Hamish Watson, John Barclay and experienced prop WP Nel along with others. It’s a far from an ideal scenario.
In the modern game injuries are happening more regularly and squads are always being stretched. It happened to Ireland this year and England last year. If Scotland want to prove themselves as a serious Rugby Nation they must withstand this tough period and in my view they have to beat a dysfunctional French team in Paris this Saturday. It’s crucial as besides Italy they haven’t won away in the Six Nations since beating Ireland in Croke Park in 2010. They should target a home victory against Wales and aim to have a close encounter with England in the final round at Twickenham.
These next three games are the ultimate test of this Scottish team’s true grit and character. Can they get results even with injuries to key players? Are they a serious Rugby nation now or still relative backbenchers? These are all question they will have to answer before the World Cup in September.
By Ciaron Noble