With the Test Window now open, Scotland’s Autumn Nations Series campaign continued at Murrayfield against Fiji. With Premiership players now available, the home team made a number of changes, and they found themselves temporarily a man up after just 80 seconds as Ratu Leone Rotuisolia was sent to the bin for not getting back 10 at a quick-tap penalty. With the man advantage, the home side looked to attack early, but Darcy Graham just ran out of room in the corner. Fiji may have managed to clear their lines but only to the edge of the 22, and the Scots’ pressure soon had them kicking a penalty to the corner, from which they mauled George Turner over for the opening try. A soft offside penalty gifted Fiji with an early chance at goal, but Setariki Tuicuvu pulled his kick wide. Back to 15 men, another penalty gave Fiji a lineout just outside the host’s 22, and after going through the phases, they got the ball wide to Tuicuvu, who was strong enough to stay infield espite Stuart Hogg’s tackle as he went over in the corner. Fiji had grown into the game—witht he help of Scottish indiscipline—and they went ahead early in the second quarter as Rotuisolia forced himself over from close range, while Stuart Hogg was also sent to the bin due to persistent offending from the hosts. With the man advantage, the visitors were on the attack again almost immediately, with Vinaya Habosi breaking down the left wing and only just being stopped by Adam Hastings, who escaped being penalised for a trip. The ill discipline continued from the Scots, who were forced to replace the injured George Turner with Ewan Ashman after half an hour, but a knock-on from Levani Botia at a ruck just short of the Scottish line allowed the hosts to clean their lines and get back to a full complement, while Fiji soon lost Kini Murimurivalu to injury, with Sireli Maqala coming on in his place. With just minutes left in the half, Darcy Graham was given a chance to score in the corner, only to fumble the ball as it reached him, however they had a scrum advantage between the posts, and when Adam Hastings wasn’t held by Kalaveti Ravouvou as the entire Fijian back line drifted too early, the Gloucester fly half went over for the try and kicked the conversion for a 14-12 lead at the break.
The Scots were forced to replace Hasting just minutes into the second half after he was rocked by a massive but legal hit from Rotuisolia, and the Scots were lucky not to concede just moments later a Levani Botia went over in the corner, only for the final pass to be called forward. And as Scotland got some possession and territory of their own, a wide pass from Chris Harris allowed Duhan van der Merwe to force his way over in the corner. Breaks from Graham and Richie Gray brought the Scots up to the line on their next attack of note, but Ewan Ashman was held up as he tried crashing over the line. Things got worse for Fiji just after the hour as Vinaya Habosi was sent to the bin for a swinging arm on Rory Sutherland. And with Fiji under heavy pressure, Scotland managed to earn a penalty beneath the posts with a dominant scrum and used the advantage to kick to the corner via Ben White, with Vilimoni Botitu just getting back to deny the ball reaching Darcy Graham. But the pressure continued and after Cam Redpath had a try disallowed for Jack Dempsey’s knock on at the back of the scrum, replacement prop Livai Natave was binned for a scrum offence just minutes after they returned to a full complement, and the next scrum saw Ben White scamper over unchallenged as he took advantage of wing Habosi filling in at flanker to avoid the scrum being pushed back over the line. As the game reached the final minute, a Scottish attack broke down, but Fiji’s counter was hampered illegally by Darcy Graham, who was sent to the bin, and though Scotland stole the lineout, they were turned over in their 22, only for Fiji to knock on with the clock in the red, denying them a late consolation as the game ended 28-12.
Adam Hastings will be desperately hoping that his Autumn Nations Series has not been brought to an early end, as his place in the Scotland squad is far from secured with a year until the World Cup. Go back a year or 2 and he was the clear back-up to Finn Russell, and a trusted starter in his own right. In the Six Nations, he found himself dropping behind Blair Kinghorn, while injury and playing in England left him unavailable for the Summer Tests and last week respectively. and in that Absence, Ross Thompson has now also come on the scene.
Today, his match was cut short following a massive hit from Rotuisolia, but even before that, he was not having things his own way. A couple of poor kicks ended promising opportunities, while even his try was more a matter of poor defence from the visitors than great play from Hastings.
Whether Russell is brought back into the squad or not, it is unlikely that Kinghorn doesn’t go to the World Cup due to his ability to also cover other positions. And with Stuart Hogg able to deputise at 10 in an emergency, Gregor Townsend may decide to only take 1 specialist 10 in the squad. Russell would be the obvious call, except that his relationship with Townsend looks strained (to put it lightly!). And if it comes down to Hastings v Thompson, while the former may have the greater experience, Thompson is playing and training with many of the squad on a weekly basis at club level.
As long as Russell remains out of the squad, the selection at 10 for Scotland will be one of the key points of interest.
Fiji have pace. Fiji have power. Fiji have incredible handling skills. All of that will take you a long way in rugby. But what Fiji really missed was a fly half. With Ben Volavola left out as he struggles for minutes at club level, and Fijian Drua 10 Teti Tela arriving in camp late after passport troubles, the team were left giving Vilimoni Botitu a first Test start at 10.
And as great a player as he is, he is not a natural 10, and it cost Fiji. Their kicking gamewas limited, as they didn’t get much length on their penalties to touch, and many open play kicks were able to be countered by the Scots. Also without a recognised kicker, it led to them struggling off of the tee, reducing their ability to fully penalise the Scots for their ill discipline.
While there is an incredible strength in depth at some positions for Tier 2 teams, especially the Pacific Island nations, it’s noticeable how few fly halves are coming through, and those that are often choose to push for a Tier 1 nation instead. And fly half is arguably one of the most important positions in Test rugby. Until these teams can get a capable 10, it’s going to be very difficult to consistently pick up victories over the Tier 1 nations.