Argentina v Scotland: Team of the Series

Argentina v Scotland: Team of the Series

We are one week on from the end of Scotland’s summer tour to South America. A series that saw a strong Scotland A team take on Chile as the South Americans prepared for their 2-leg playoff with the USA—which they won to secure the Americas 2 spot at RWC2023—before the first choice team (minus a few regulars) faced Argentina in a 3-Test series, which saw a last-gasp try from Emiliano Boffelli secure a 2-1 series win for the Pumas to kick off Michael Cheika’s tenure as head coach.

And so, as we spend this period after the Summer Tours patiently waiting for the beginning of the Rugby Championship, it’s time to look back over the tour to create my combined XV. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the match between Scotland A and Chile, so this will focus purely on the Test series with Argentina,

Who do you think should have made the XV? Let me know in the comments below.



My combined XV from Scotland’s 3-Test series against Argentina is:

1) Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro: Was hard to separate anyone out from the pack here, but what really stuck in my mind was the way that Tetaz Chaparro followed up 2 starts with a strong performance off the bench to help pull the Pumas back into the final Test and flip the momentum in their favour.

2) Ewan Ashman: A solid but not spectacular series for Julián Montoya, who missed the decider, while Scotland rotated their hookers with each getting a start and an appearance off the bench. As such, the most notable performance was that of Ewan Ashman, who put in a solid all-round performance—including 2 tries, one of which highlighted his threat in the loose—to put Scotland in a position where they should have held on to win the final Test.

3) Zander Fagerson: I wonder if Fagerson actually gets the recognition he deserves on the international stage. Was solid in the scrums through the series and showed his quality with ball in hand during the fina Test.

4 & 5) Guido Petti & Grant Gilchrist: Petti played a crucial role in the set piece, with a number of crucial steals at the lineout. Meanwhile, Gilchrist did a solid job in the second row, while also took on the responsibility of captaining the team with a number of Scotland’s most experienced players given the summer off.

6) Rory Darge: Made an immediate impression on his debut Six Nations and carried on where he left off in Argentina. Darge is a turnover machine, and it will be very hard to drop him from the XV, which is crazy to think considering how locked in the pairing of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Waston has been.

7) Hamish Watson: Celebrated reaching his half-century of caps out in Argentina and will surely go on to earn many more. missed the opening Test, but came back with 2 solid performances. You always know what you’ll get from him: a tireless engine, reliable tackling, crucial turnovers and hard carrying.

8) Matt Fagerson: Appears to have secured the number 8 spot in the Scotland squad in recent matches and is certainly becoming more influential in the team. Carried well throughout the series to help put the Scots on the front foot.

9) Gonzalo Bertranou: Wasn’t even intended to be in the wider squad this summer but ended up starting the first few Tests and coming off the bench in the finale. Played well in the first 2 Tests and helped spark a comeback in the decider. Took his opportunities well to score 2 tries.

10) Santiago Carreras: Maybe I have some bias here as a Gloucester fan, but in a Test series where both of the main 10s were transitioning to the position from 15, Carreras was more consistent that Blair Kinghorn, though he didn’t have to worry about goal kicking. Ran the game well and took his moments to score 2 beautiful tries. Regardless, I still feel that he is better at 15 than 10.

11) Duhan van der Merwe: Was quiet in the first Test, but when Scotland actually started paying more rugby he became a real threat. Carried well and was fully deserving of his try early in the decider.

12) Sam Johnson: Like many Scottish players, he was wasted in the opening Test as they kicked too much ball away, but came into his own as Scotland started playing more attacking rugby. Scored off a lovely crash ball line in the second game.

13) Mark Bennett: One of Scotland’s best players in the series, it was great to see him back paying consistently and he was on top attacking form. Scored 2 very different, but equally impressive tries, beating his man on an outside arc in the first Test and taking a much more direct line from deep in the second.

14) Bautista Delguy: Had limited minutes as Michael Cheika looked at his options, but managed to get more involved than many of his fellow wingers. Made a number of breaks and half-breaks while continually keeping the Scottish defence guessing.

15) Juan Cruz Mallia: Missed the second Test but looked dangerous in both other matches. Found space to start a number of attacks returning kicks.

Argentina v Scotland: The 2022 Decider

Argentina v Scotland: The 2022 Decider

Scotland’s South American tour came to an end with a deciding third Test between them and Argentina. With the series on the line, both coaches decided to make a number of changes, and it was Argentina who ha the first chance as they spread the ball off the first phase from a lineout, only for the crucial final pass to go through over Emiliano Boffelli’s head and through his hands and into touch. The Pumas wing soon opened the scoring though with a penalty from just inside his own half after Ali Price failed to get back onside at the breakdown. Both teams were looking to play attacking rugby early on, and when Blair Kinghorn got his arms through a tackle, he was able to release Duhan van der Merwe to burst trough the 22 for the opening try. The Pumas took the lead back as the quarter came to an end though, Bautista Delguy collecting a loose ball and making good ground, before Juan Cruz Mallia and Boffelli combined to release Santiago Carreras to run 40 metres untouched. Scotland’s next attack saw them earn a penalty which, they kicked to touch and mauled over, with hooker Ewan Ashman the man with ball in hand, with Kinghorn adding the touchline conversion to open up a 4-point lead. Another Boffelli penalty attempt from inside his own half lacked the accuracy of the first, but he made amends from closer range just a few minutes later but a failure to secure the restart put the Pumas back under immediate pressure, but a timely lineout steal from Guido Petti allowed the home team to clear their lines, and though there was just time for one more Scottish penalty, Blair Kinghorn’s effort from 46 metres came back off the crossbar and the teams went into the break with the Scots leading 13-14.

An error for the Pumas in their exit plan off the restart saw the Scots with immediate possession in the 22, and after going through a number of phases, Ashman found himself getting the ball out wide and slipped through a weak tackle from Delguy to cross in the corner, while van der Merwe crossed from close range just minutes later after a break from Mark Bennett. The Pumas were in need of a response and it came almost straight away as replacement prop Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro forced himself over from close range. As the game passed the our mark, Kinghorn added a penalty from close range, but the Pumas hit straight back with a try through replacement scrum half Gonzalo Bertranou, with Boffelli’s conversion narrowing the gap to 4 points. Not for the first time in the game, the home side failed to deal with the restart, and the Scots took advantage to win a penalty and kick to the corner, but the Scottish maul got its push on too early and they failed to get the ball to the back, resulting in Jonny Gray being held up over the line. As the game entered the final 5 minutes, the Pumas were pressuring the Scottish line and with the final play of the game, Carreras found Boffelli on the wing to go over for the game-winning—and series-winning—try, before kicking the conversion for a 34-31 victory.

Their own worst enemy

It’s amazing how often you see it in rugby: the team that has just scored either fail to secure te restart as it is kicked to them, or make some error/give away a dumb penalty in their attempt to implement their exit strategy.

This was the case for the Pumas today. In the first half, it was somewhat understandable. The Scots were repeatedly aiming their kickoffs to the one area of the pitch that was still bathed in sunlight, and with Blair Kinghorn able to get an incredible hangtime on his kicks, it allowed the Scots to get up and pressure the Pumas as they tried to catch the ball whilst also dealing with the sun blinding them—a recipe for disaster.

However even more worrying were 2 of the incidents in the first half. The first one being off the kickoff to the half, as the Pumas tried to carry a couple of times before clearing, only to find themselves held up in a maul and turned over—which gifted the Scots a try—and the second when Carreras took the restart and after a moment of hesitation tried to clear himself, only have the kick charged down by Pierre Schoeman.

To me, this came down to a lack of experience in the halves. Scrum half Lautaro Bazán Vélez was making his Test debut, and while Carreras may now have 20+ caps to his name, he is still getting used to playing at fly half and does not play the position at club level. As such, you’re asking a lot for the pair to control the game under pressure, and its notable that things improved with Bertranou coming on at 9. Maybe Carreras is the future for the Pumas at 10, but for me right now he is still at his best at 15, and Nicolás Sánchez should be wearing the 10 jersey in the big games next year in France.

Lucky at number 13

Mark Bennett has been one of the biggest bright sparks of this tour. The centre has always been a quality player and dangerous attacker, but injuries had severely hampered his international career, so much so that the first Test of this series was his first Test start in 6 years.

But he has certainly taken his chances, being consistently one of the brighter sparks for Scotland in attack, making a number of breaks and scoring a couple of tries as well. With performances like this, it would be very hard to drop him for the next Test.

And therein lies the issue, as the number 13 shirt has been well and truly secured in recent years by Chris Harris. A player who always feels like he has put in an 8/10 performance at worst, Harris is the lynchpin of the Scottish defence, one of the best 13s in the world and a leader in the team, while it’s also notable that he was one of the few backs getting regular minutes in the Six Nations who were not involved in that breach of protocol. And well defence may be his specialty, his attacking play has also improved during his years at Gloucester.

With Harris given the summer off, Gregor Townsend will have a big decision the next time he names a team. Does he stick with Mark Bennett, or return to Harris? Or is there some way that he can get both into the team without taking away from what they do best…?

Argentina v Scotland

Argentina v Scotland

Scotland’s South American adventure continued this week with a trip to Salta to face Argentina in the second Test of the tour. Scotland had a chance to make it a clean sweep on the day for the Home Nations if they could get the win here, but after Blair Kinghorn and Emiliano Boffelli traded early penalties, it was the Pumas who had the first chance of note as fly half Santiago Carreras accelerated through a gap, but as the Pumas looked to continue the break, Jerónimo de la Fuente was not quite able to ship the ball off first time to Santiago Cordero, who would have had an easy run into the corner. Scotland were having the greater share of possession and territory with little to show for it, until Darcy Graham managed to win a high ball from Ben White and spark an attack, which ended in several tacklers just bundling Duhan van der Merwe over the touchline 5 metres from the line. As the game reached the half hour mark, a spell of concerted pressure from Argentina allowed Boffelli to put them ahead with another penalty, but the Scots were straight back on the attack and after kicking a penalty to the corner, Hamish Watson managed to go over for the opening try of the match on the occasion of his 50ᵗʰ cap, and though Kinghorn missed the conversion, they found themselves going in at the break with a 6-8 lead.

The third quarter proved crucial for Scotland’s most successful spell of the game last week and it started in similar fashion this week, with the forwards putting in some great carries that allowed Mark Bennett to hit a gap from depth at pace to scythe over for try number 2 just minutes after the restart. The Pumas were soon on the attack themselves through, and when Juan Imhoff broke down the left wing, the ball was then spread out to the right for lock Guido Petti to score, though it was ruled out after a TMO review found that there had been a forward pass to help set up the break. With 30 minutes remaining, ROss Thompson was brought on for the injured Kyle Row (taking over at 10, with Kinghorn moving to 15), and the Scots were immediately pressuring the Pumas’ try line, resulting in Emiliano Boffelli being sent to the bin as the defenders gave away too many penalties, and Scotland quickly took advantage of the extra man to crash Matt Fagerson over for the try, Thompson taking over the kicking duties and nailing the simple conversion. Argentina thought that they had a much-needed try just before the hour as Carreras squeezed through a number of defenders, but Rory Darge just managed to force the ball loose as he crossed the line, though the Pumas could be rightfully unhappy with the pathetically short penalty advantage given in the opposition 22 by Mathieu Raynal. The Scots were able to clear their line, and a couple of penalties saw them move down the field to the Argentina line, where Sam Johnson crashed over to all-but guarantee the win with 15 minutes remaining. The Pumas looked to hit back immediately, but the sniping Gonzalo Bertranou was held up over the line. With the victory beyond them, Boffelli went over with 5 minutes remaining, but saw the ball stripped away by Mark Bennett as he went to ground, and Matías Orlando knocked on as he tried to react at the last moment, and the Scots saw out the final moments to secure a 6-29 victory.

Heart, now head

Michael Cheika has the Pumas playing with heart again, which in itself is a huge improvement from the malaise at the end of Ledesma’s reign. Now he desperately needs to bring some accuracy to their play.

In attack, they have such quality out wide, but rarely manage to get the ball to them in any space, but the real worry is in defence, where they are just giving away far too many penalties. Marcos Kremer appears to have cut out the stupid hits, but the team as a whole is still gifting their opposition with too much simple possession and territory by not staying onside and by not being accurate enough at the breakdown.

The Pumas are in an interesting position. They have a team with plenty of quality and potential, and it doesn’t feel like they are far off unlocking that, which will see them start to score more. But o win, they also need to keep the opposition score down, and to do so they need to be more accurate and perhaps even a little more conservative, taking a extra half a step back to ensure they don’t jump offside. If they continue like this, it will be a long Rugby Championship campaign but a few small but crucial improvements could see them being really competitive.

Building

This was a much better attacking performance from Scotland. They varied the attack by playing both through the forwards, with width and also with van der Merwe coming inside. The forwards carried with conviction and both centres made certain that they were not being stopped by defenders by picking their lines from depth and hitting the ball at pace. After the disappointment of last week, this was a sorely needed performance that needs to become the base level expected.

There will still be questions though. Is Blair Kinghorn the answer at 10? I haven’t seen enough from him to suggest so, and would suggest that Ross Thompson be given the starting spot next week. Will this be enough to push for the RWC2023 semifinals? I don’t think that even the return of their missing stars will be enough for that.

With the World Cup just over a year away, it feels like the only step forward the Scots have taken over the last 2 games is the form of Mark Bennett. As great as that is, this is nowhere near enough.

Argentina v Scotland

Argentina v Scotland

Fresh off a comprehensive win for a strong Scottish “A” side over Chile, i was time for a stronger test for the Scots as they faced Argentina. The Pumas were playing their first home game since August 2019, and it took just 4 minutes for them to open the scoring via a Nicolás Sánchez penalty. After a couple of poor years under Mario Ledesma, a big performance for Argentina in their first match under Michael Cheika was a must, and they were certainly the dominant team early on, but the Scots held firm and their fist extended spell of possession ended with a Blair Kinghorn penalty to level the scores after 15 minutes. Sánchez soon put the Pumas back ahead with another penalty, but his match was ended early with an injury after 20 minutes and he was replaced by Santiago Carreras. The fly half’s loss was soon felt as Emiliano Boffelli missed his first kick at goal, while Kinghorn was more accurate with his own attempt moments later. However the Pumas were looking dangerous with ball in hand and as they stretched the Scottish defence missing its lynchpin Chris Harris (one of a number of key players given the summer off), Jerónimo de la Fuente managed to force his way over for the first try after 30 minutes. And just minutes later, a break from Juan Cruz Mallia saw Santiago Cordero brought down just short of the line, but Carreras was there in support to dive over in the corner. Matías Orlando nearly made it 3 just moments later as a Scottish attack broke down and the ball went to ground before being hacked on by the transitioning Pumas, but Duhan van der Merwe just got back to kick the ball dead, with Matt Fagerson winning a crucial turnover penalty as Argentina attacked off the resulting scrum, with the half ending 18-6.

The Scots may have been without some big names after choosing to rest Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris, but they got the first chance of the second half with a 5m lineout, and though Petti got up to steal the ball, it was not taken cleanly off the top and Duhan van der Merwe just failed to cleanly ground the ball as he and Carreras both dived for the loose ball. But they kept the pressure on and Mark Bennett managed to beat Cordero to the outside to go over in the corner for a crucial try in his first Test start for 6 years. The Scottish dominance continued, aided by Argentinian indiscipline, and the Scots were soon over for another try, Kinghorn arcing a run to the corner flag and playing a switch to Rory Hutchinson, who crashed over the line, with Kinghorn kicking the extras to level the scores. This seemed to spark the Pumas into life, and after Boffelli won the restart and Orlando got the ball up to the try line, Gonzalo Bertranou—originally intended to spend the summer with the development squad in Europe, then later called into the senior squad and intended to be on the bench until a late injury to Tomás Cubelli promoted him to the starting spot—sniped over for an immediate response. As the game entered the final quarter, Sam Johnson thought that he had scored out wide, only for Nic Berry to adjudge Kinghorn’s fizzed pass to him to have gone forward. With 10 minutes remaining, Boffelli kicked a penalty to make it a 2-score game and the defence held firm as the clock ticked down to secure a 26-18 victory.

Belief is back

It’s always amazing just how quickly a side can turn around. In the final days of Mario Ledesma, this was a side that didn’t look like they wanted to be playing. They were aimless and lacking discipline. Now they look like they first did under him: attacking through their exciting back line and bringing in the forwards to keep that expansive play. Oh and Marcos Kremer didn’t do anything stupid.

While a change in coach has probably helped freshen things up, I also wouldn’t be surprised if part of it is something as simple as getting to play in front of a home crowd. The home fans will never be accused of not being passionate, and that level of support is always going to help propel a team on. But more than that, to play away from loved ones for so long in continuous COVID bubbles would sap the will of any human.

They still have some work to do on things like defence and discipline, and they desperately need to find a more reliable goal kicker than Boffelli for when Sánchez is off the pitch, but after a couple of disappointing seasons, this is a timely and necessary improvement.

Kicking themselves

I can’t help feel that Scotland got their tactics very wrong in this game. In and around the Argentina 22, they clearly showed that they were dangerous in attack and able to break the Pumas defence down. However, they did not seem to want to play attacking rugby between the halfway line and the Pumas 22, choosing instead to just kick away all possession.

Admittedly not all kicking is bad kicking, but in this case, I think it was, as they relied on the altitude to kick long and enter a territory game with the Pumas (which saw them kicked back into their own redzone), rather than putting up contestable box kicks and bombs. These attacking kicks would have put a lot more pressure on a Pumas back 3 who had an easy day, and would have also put more uncertainty into the defensive line as to what Scotland were going to do, which would have then allowed them to bring players like the anonymous van der Merwe into the game much more.

As much as Argentina looked better than recent Tests windows, they still looked very beatable, despite the quality of players missing for the Scots. Scotland just need to play much smarter rugby next week.

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland

The middle match of Super Saturday saw Ireland hosting Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland knew that they still had a chance of winning the tournament should England defeat France later that evening and after a free-flowing first 15 minutes, they found themselves just denied the opening try as Josh van der Flier was held up following a driving maul. However they were trying again with a m maul on the opposite side of the pitch just minutes later, and this time Dan Sheehan was able to splinter off and crash over to break the deadlock. As the half wore on, Ireland began to dominate possession and territory, and the next time they made it up to the Scottish try line, it was Cian Healy who forced himself the final couple of inches to cross the whitewash. However the Scots finally worked their way through some phases and Pierre Schoeman managed to reach out for the line and score, though the conversion from Blair Kinghorn—starting at fly half ahead of Finn Russell following his latest breach of team protocols—drifted wide of the posts to leave the score at 14-5 at the break.

The Scots had the chance to open the scoring after the break as a deflected kick bounced fortuitously off off Stuart Hogg’s thigh to beat his opposite man and allow him to regather, but with 3 men supporting inside, the Scottish captain decided that it had been too long since he had butchered a try and he instead held onto the ball and allowed himself to be tackled into touch just short of the corner by Hugo Keenan. His selfishness became even more costly just before the hour as the latest period of Irish possession in the Scottish 22 saw van der Flier go over for Ireland’s 3ʳᵈ try of the game. The Scots continued to attack, but despite getting some possession and territory, they could still find no way of seriously troubling the Irish defence, and a late yellow card for Ben White set the Irish up nicely for Conor Murray to go over with just a minute left on the clock to earn a bonus point and a 26-5. That result secured Ireland the Triple Crown, while the bonus point meant that a French draw (providing no bonus point) against England would be enough to send the title back to Dublin.

It’s been a while, but it feels like one of Ireland’s few weak spots over the last couple of years is finally sorted: hooker. While Rory Best was a leader, he often struggled at the lineout, and the man who inherited the number 2 jersey, Rob Herring, didn’t necessarily look bad, but was not the same quality as the team around him.

However over the last year or so, Rónan Kelleher finally seemed to win the number 2 jersey, while fellow Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan also took his chances to impress and take on the starting role following Kelleher’s injury. Both are fantastic modern-day hookers; they have the mobility of a back row, the handling skills to match anyone in this Irish team and (most importantly) they are reliable at the line-out.

At just 24 and 23 respectively, Kelleher and Sheehan look to be the go-to hooker pairing for Ireland for the foreseeable future. And the scary thing is that they will likely only get better over the next few years as they get more accustomed to Test rugby.

Now all the Irish lack is a replacement for Jonathan Sexton…

Scotland

While I questioned if it was time the WRU moved on from Wayne Pivac, I think it’s time that the Scots moved on from Gregor Townsend. While they have developed great depth and pulled out some big results, they still flatter to deceive and fail to put together a genuine challenge for the title.

Throughout the tournament their backs have struggled to put together much of note, and the decision to replace Finn Russell with with Blair Kinghorn didn’t help things either—arguably Kinghorn should have been replacing Stuart Hogg at 15, then maybe the team would have stopped butchering their best chances.

But while the aimless attacking has been bad, probably the last straw came following last week’s win over Italy, with 6 players (Ali Price, Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham, Sam Johnson and Sione Tuipulotu) breaching team protocols by leaving team premises to go to a bar. That’s 3 of your biggest leaders and all of your playmakers in the back line. If they’re doing this, it suggests that there is some disconnect between them and Townsend, while this is not the first time Russell has been disciplined for breaching team protocols. It seems Townsend has lost control of the team, and there’s no coming back from that.

But this should be an attractive side to potential replacements. The depth of this squad is better than I can remember it being in a long time, with Rory Darge, Ben White, Andy Christie and Ben Vellacott all earning their first caps and players like Schoeman, Tuipulotu, Josh Bayliss and Kyle Steyn all gaining vital international experience. With a decent number of Tests still to play ahead of the World Cup, this is the time to move on from Townsend and bring in someone who can turn this potential into results.

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

The penultimate Saturday of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with Scotland’s trip to Italy. The Italian’s las win in the competition came at Scotland’s expense, and the Azzurri took an early lead through a penalty from Paolo Garbisi. However it was the Scots who got the opening try on 17 minutes after a loose Italian kick allowed them to counter; George Turner broke down the right wing and as his supporting men kept the ball alive, Finn Russell was able to spread the ball wide to send Sam Johnson over in the left corner. Italy soon found themselves on the attack, but Ali Price intercepted Callum Braley’s pass just 5 metres from the Scottish line and broker away with Kyle Steyn, and as the wing ran out of space he chipped back inside for the supporting Chris Harris to finish. The Italians were not deterred by such a blow though, and after Garbisi missed a penalty, a sweeping move to the right saw Pierre Bruno dominate contact with Stuart Hogg and offload back inside to Callum Braley for the try, with Garbisi’s touchline conversion bringing them back within 2 points. However an Ali Price break put the Scots into the Italian 22, and after a head injury forced a stoppage, the Scottish back ran some clever lines to send Harris crashing over for his second, with Russell kicking the conversion for a 10-19 halftime lead.

The game remained close after the break, but the Scotland attack appeared to be growing in confidence, and when an inside pass from Finn Russell put Darcy Graham through just inside the opposition 22, the wing stepped his way over to secure the bonus point. As the hour approached, Italy made a number of changes, but this arguably interrupted their play and as Garbisi missed another penalty, a comeback was looking unlikely. That “unlikely” became “almost certainly not” as Man of the Match Ali Price broke the line on the hour and mad plenty of ground before sending captain Stuart Hogg over in the corner, while Monty Ioane was beaten by the bounce of the ball just minutes later as he ran onto a grubber kick with the line at his mercy. However Italy kept on the pressure and forced another try through Ange Capuozzo, just 22 minutes into his debut off the bench. This score appeared to invigorate them and with 7 minutes left were perhaps unlucky not to get a penalty try as their maul was collapsed just short of the line, but they refused to give up and with the clock 2 minutes into the red, Capuozzo stepped over for another try and a 22-33 final score.

Italy

One player who doesn’t get talked about anywhere near enough in this Italian squad is Monty Ioane. While the 14 shirt has been somewhat a revolving door of players, Ioane has deservedly made the 11 shirt his own.

A strong and willing carrier, he rarely gets the chance to find himself with the ball and clear air in front of him, but he continually still makes metres, with a great combination of strength and footwork to beat defenders and break tackles. Meanwhile in the kicking game he runs his heart out and competes well, while also popping up in the midfield to provide an option to get a move going by taking an inside pass through a gap or to chase a cheeky chip (as we saw from Braley today) if the kick defence is too deep.

At 27 years old, he is in his prime and will benefit as Italy continue to improve as a team, as it will create the space out wide for him to exploit rather than forcing him to make the space himself, and as this next generation of stars comes through from the U18s and U20s, he will be an experienced mentor to take his replacements to even higher levels.

Scotland

This was a big match for Scotland. After a big start to the tournament with victory over England, things have gone downhill and they took a shellacking 2 weeks ago. With stars Jamie Ritchie and Duhan van der Merwe missing, there was always a risk of the Italians becoming a banana skin today.

But the Scots got things right today, going back to their kicking game and relying on the quality of their defence to limit the Italian opportunities, and then taking advantage of any poor Italian kick chases or gaps in the Italian defence with the quality of attackers like Ali Price, Finn Russell, Darcy Graham and Stuart Hogg going the length of the field in just seconds.

2 weeks ago, Scotland threw out their gameplan as soo as they found themselves behind… and lost. This week, they stuck with it, and if they continue to do so, they will be a challenge for many teams.

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v France

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v France

After taking a week off, the Six Nations Championship returned for round 3, starting with France’s trip to Edinburgh. Les Bleus were the only team still capable of winning the Grand Slam this year, and soon found themselves ahead at Murrayfield as Antoine Dupont’s break was followed up by a series of strong runs from the pack and ended with Paul Willemse crashing over from close range. The Scots soon hit back with a penalty from Finn Russell, but the French immediately answered by spreading the ball all the way to the left off a lineout and then sweepin back right, with Damian Penaud and Cyril Baille both keeping the ball alive as they were bundled into touch, allowing Yoram Moefana to cross for the try. The Scots finally began to get some control on the game and Baille was perhaps lucky to not give away a penalty try for a high tackle on Ali Price as he was held up on the line, but the Scots kept up the pressure with a quick tap and soon saw Rory Darge go over for a try on his first Test start. As halftime approached, the game felt like it was on the edge of a knife, and when Duhan van der Merwe broke away in midfield with support, it looked like the Scots would go into the break with the lead. However while Chris Harris’ support line was bettered only by his wide pass to Stuart Hogg, the Scottish captain had forgotten his catching hands and saw the chance disappear, a moment that would come back to haunt them even more just moments later as Gaël Fickou arced over in the corner, with Jaminet converting to turn what could have been a 17-12 lead for the Scots into a 10-19 lead for France.

If there was any question as to how the momentum had shifted in the final moments of the first half, it took just 2 minutes for the French to score their 4ᵗʰ try and secure the bonus point, as Damian Penaud broke down the wing and chipped forward, and though he was outpaced by both Hogg and van der Merwe, all three were beaten by a wicked bounce of the ball which fell into the hands of Jonathan Danty to go over on his return from injury. The Scots continued to have plenty of possession, but were having to attack from deep, and when Darge had the ball ripped in a maul, the ball was spread to Penaud to go over out wide, and the wing scored his second with just minutes left as Romain Ntamack foundhi in acres of space with a clever cross-kick. The game was over as a competition, but when replacement Blair Kinghorn fielded a kick and found a gap in the French defence, he burst through and fed van der Merwe for a try that at least salvaged a little pride for the home side, with a final score of 17-36.

Scotland

While this was anything but a good day for the Scots, one massive positive they can take from the game was the performance of Rory Darge. With Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson both out injured and Hamish Watson also ruled out with COVID, Darge found himself given the 7 shirt having made his debut off the bench in round 2.

And what a performance the young back row put in! For a player to make 1 or 2 turnovers at the breakdown in a Test is usually an achievement, Darge seemed to be the one consistently getting a hand in at the crucial moment, bringing a number of promising French attacks to an early end. And while he did not have quite the physicality of Watson in attack, he certainly did his fair share of carrying with 14 carries (a team high) for 39 yards.

While it is still early days, Darge looks like a natural at Test level, and this is great news for Scotland as they look to develop depth in their back row. For a while now it has been Watson, Ritchie and one other in the back row, but Fagerson and Magnus Bradbury have both grown into capable Test players. With Darge now entering the fray, they have 5 great options to pick from when everyone is available, with Bath’s Josh Bayliss and Saracens’ Andy Christie also looking like they could become regulars in the wider squad over the coming years—good news for everyone except Nick Haining, who will surely struggle to keep his spot when other options are available after another performance that showed he is not suited to this level.

France

This was a stellar performance from Les Bleus. Though the Scots had the greater possession and ran for more metres, there was only ever one winner in doubt.

Barring a few breaks, the French defence comfortably dealt with everything the Scots threw at them, while the pack dominated at the set piece and helped create quick ball in attack. And with the quality of ball carrying throughout the squad, the team were able to consistently manipulate the Scottish defence—who were given an even harder task with the loss of Chris Harris at halftime—to score in just a handful of phases.

But they didn’t even just do this in one way. They utilised a break by then having their forwards charge onto the ball at pace to keep up the momentum for Willemse’s try, while for multiple tries they forced the defence to overcommit to the farwing by spreading it from the right touchline all the way to the left wing in one phase, only to then put it through the hands and work the numbers spreading the ball right back to the right wing where the Scots ran out of numbers.

Back in 2020 I predicted that France would win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. While the Springboks still look deadly, these performances from France continue to convince me that I made the right choice.

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Scotland

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off today in Cardiff with Wales facing Scotland. Wayne Pivac’s men had made a number of changes following last week’s dismal loss in Dublin and got the opening points with a pair of penalties from Dan Biggar on his 100ᵗʰ Test, however Scotland were soon on the board themselves when Duhan van der Merwe was released down the wing into the Scottish 22. After a series of phases, Finn Russell wrapped around in midfield and spread the ball wide to Darcy Graham, whose clever footwork allowed him to beat Louis Rees-Zammit to the corner. Three Russell penalties to one from Biggar gave the Scots the lead, but a strong driving lineout from 5m out saw Tomas Francis go over to level the scores at 14-14, a scoreline which survived to the break.

In a tight second half, Russell and Biggar traded penalties, but after a second attempt from Biggar came back off the posts to be recovered by Wales, Alex Cuthbert was just denied a try in the corner by some solid defence. However, in the checking of the potential try, a deliberate knock-on was noticed from Finn Russell and the fly half was sent to the bin with just 13 minutes remaining. Wales went through the phases but could not get over the line in the early moments and Dan Biggar chose to take the drop goal for a 20-17 lead with 10 minutes remaining. Though it left Scotland with a chance, the Welsh defended hard and repelled all attacks, but had a nervous moment in the final seconds as a high shot from Taine Basham was checked by the TMO. However referee Nic Berry found the home crowd too loud to resist and let the young flanker away with just a penalty, and the 15 men on Wales managed to stop the Scots around halfway and won a penalty with the clock in the red to confirm their victory.

Wales

The Welsh lineout has been somewhat unreliable at the best of times in recent years. However with both Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones missing, this has looked even more of a risky area. Scotland certainly thought that they could get some fortune here judging by the selection of Sam Skinner at 6.

However the lineout did a fantastic job today, being near perfect in its ball retention, while even mauling Tomas Francis over from short range at a vital point in the match. Sometimes it can really hurt to lose players of such quality as Owens and Jones, but what it does is force the other players on the pitch to step up and fill the void. And while I still don’t know how Ryan Elias gets away with a hendred dummy throws at each lineout, he is starting to get some familiarity with players like Adam Beard and Will Rowlands, which is helping solidify a key area of the game.

The challenge now will be to continually hit these high levels in repeated Tests.

Scotland

While the Welsh defence and physicality was infinitely better this week, Scotland did not help themselves. With Sione Tuipulotu, Chris Harris and Duhan van der Merwe all starting, this was arguably one of the most physical back lines Scotland have played in years. And yet they were not used enough.

While there were some moments, such as the try, where they were utilised well—van Der Merwe breaking into the 22, an arc and offload from Harris getting them up to the 5m line and the physicality of the midfield allowing Russell to hit the Welsh with the wrap play— there was not enough of this through the game. Wales were clearly playing much more confidently and yet the Scots would just kick the ball back to them and let them play their game, allowing Dan Biggar to run the game, while too often van der Merwe was just left carrying into contact rather than being put into space, resulting in multiple turnovers.

In Finn Russell, they have one of the most gifted attacking 10s in rugby. If Scotland want to start winning regularly and challenging for the Six Nations, they need to start playing to their strengths.

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v England

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v England

With the latest edition of the Six Nations having got underway in Dublin, we weren’t made to wait long for the battle of the auld enemies as England made the trip to Murrayfield to face Scotland.

Eddie Jones’ men came in with some unfamiliar combinations, but they were the dominant team from the start, though it took 17 minutes before they could take advantage on the scoreboard, courtesy of a penalty from Marcus Smith. However the Scots appeared to be woken up by this, and after a quick throw caught England napping, Stuart Hogg put Darcy Graham through a gap and Ben White—on for his debut as a HIA replacement for Ali Price—popped up on his inside shoulder to put Gregor Townsend’s men in the lead, with Finn Russell adding the extras. As the half went on, England continued to dominate the territory game with strong carries and kicks to the corner, but a strong lineout drive saw the ball held up over the line and the only additions to the score before the break were a penalty apiece for the fly halves for a 10-6 halftime score.

It was more of the same early in the second half, with Smith adding another penalty, and as the English pack got a solid lineout drive going, the Harlequins fly half looped round to the large blind side to go over in the corner and give his team the lead, before kicking another penalty just after the hour before being replaced by George Ford. Scotland were soon on the attack though, and as Finn Russell put i a cross-kick to Darcy Graham, the wing was clearly impeded by a deliberate slap forward by Luke Cowan-Dickie and with no other cover anywhere near, referee Ben O’Keeffe awarded the penalty try to level the scores with 15 minutes remaining and sent the Exeter Chiefs hooker to the bin. As the clock ticked into the final 10 minutes, Finn Russell kicked the Scots ahead following a scrum penalty out wide, and when Darcy Graham won a turnover following 4 minutes of reset scrums, Scotland could finally boot the ball out to celebrate a 20-17 victory that would see them retain the Calcutta Cup for the first time since 1984.

Scotland

Scotland went for an interesting tactics with their kicks today, choosing to keep most of them infield rather than kicking the ball out. While it suggests that they are confident in their fitness that they can keep going at a high tempo, it’s also very dangerous play as it allows England the chance to either counterattack or kick the ball back to touch for a territorial advantage.

I can’t help but wonder if this was decision was made due to a nervousness about the English driving maul. They were certainly hurt by it on a couple of occasions during the match, so any chance to reduce the number of English lineouts makes sense, while on some occasions the kick chase was so good that it actually put the opposition under pressure as they tried to kick.

However, while it took away one weapon, it gave England the chance to run the ball back and was a big factor in Scotland barely playing any rugby in the opening hour, whereas kicking to touch would have allowed them moments to regroup and even try to steal ball at the lineout.

Next week, against a Wales team with dangerous counterattackers in the back 3 but questions over the lineout, don’t be shocked to see the Scots putting more of their kicks out to touch.

England

England dominated this game, yet once again what should have been an easy victory turned into a disappointing defeat due to Eddie Jones’ tactics.

While the pack played incredibly well—solid in the set piece and carrying tirelessly with strength—the back line lacked any semblance of shape in attack, which is no real surprise considering it included no specialist 12s or wings and three 13s. But more than just the bad shape was the continued tactic of kicking for territory rather than playing heads-up rugby.

Marcus Smith is a fantastic talent, but this tactic hobbles him, while it also puts pressure on the defence to be solid, which it struggled to be in this match. If they played real heads-up rugby, this game would have been over by the hour, instead, England spent most of the match behind courtesy of just a few moments of attacking quality from a team who should have been down and out.

Guinness Six Nations