Six Nations 2020: Scotland v France

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v France

The final match of Round 4 saw Scotland hosting France. The French were the only team still capable of winning the Grand Slam and after a tight half hour, they took the lead through returning winger Damian Penaud. Just a few minutes later however, a large scuffle between the 2 teams saw Mohamed Haouas given a red card for throwing a punch at Jamie Ritchie. Scotland quickly took advantage of the extra man with a try for Sean Maitland either side of half time. Stuart McInally added a third as the French began to tire, but they fought back to score through captain Charles Ollivon, resulting in a final score of 28-17 to Scotland, which takes the Six Nations to next week and beyond due to Italy’s Round 4 & 5 fixtures being postponed.

 

Scotland

This is a very weird time for Scotland. Many of us have got used to seeing the Scots scoring tries for fun but struggling to keep the opposition’s score down. Right now, they’re not scoring anywhere near as much, but they’re also starting to look better in defence. Obviously this game is a little hard to judge due to the red card leaving the French a man down for over half the game, but the Scottish defence was tenacious throughout and really put the French under pressure, causing a number of handling errors that would bring attacks to an end.

It feels like Scotland are finally starting to get the balance right between physical players and skilful attackers, and though they may not be scoring the tries right now, they’re keeping themselves in games, which is a great spot to build from.

France

So much went wrong for France in this game. Substitute hooker Camille Chat had to pull out injured during the warm-up, François Cros got an early yellow card, star fly half Romain Ntamack went off for a HIA just 7 minutes in and never returned, and finally Mohamed Haouas’ moment of madness left France playing over half the game a man down. Granted some of this was avoidable, but that is a lot to go against a team… and yet they still held on to keep things close. Not only that, but they refused to stop playing and kept on going throughout, with a stunning late attack leading to Ollivon’s try.

So many people started talking about the return of the “old France” after the punch – another of those tired narratives the media go to in order to try sounding smart and actually look stupid – but if this was the old France, then they would have capitulated! It is a testament to the coaches and players just how far this team has come already and I expect them to bounce back next week against Ireland.


My standout players

It feels like he gets a weekly mention, but Hamish Watson again proved himself a nightmare for the opposition, with a couple of key turnovers, while Sean Maitland took his chances like a true poacher and I felt that he was unfortunate to be removed when on a hat-trick.

While this was far from the best match Antione Dupont has played for Les Bleus, he still had some moments of incredible skill and controlled the game well alongside Matthieu Jalibert, who reacted well to his early introduction and showed the coaches that they don’t need to worry if Romain Ntamack is unable to make it through return to play protocols this week.

Six Nations 2020: Italy v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Italy v Scotland

The Six Nations returned after a week off with our first trip to Rome in 2020. Scotland and Italy have generally shared the Wooden Spoon between them most years since the tournament took its current form, and the first 2 rounds made that likely to be the case again this year.

In a tight affair, Stuart Hogg put Scotland ahead with a wonderful solo attack on 23 minutes for the only points of the first half. The game continued in much the same way in the second half: Scotland and Italy both fighting hard for possession and territory with limited success in each other’s 22, though Chris Harris did manage to power himself over for a try 7 minutes after halftime. Then in the dying minute, a final attack from Italy was turned over and Adam Hastings was able to sneak away down the blind side to score and convert a try for an eventual 0-17 victory.

Italy

It’s never nice to see a player give the shepherd’s crook early in a game, but sometimes a player’s performance will be so bad, there is no way they can be kept on the pitch. Sadly, that was the case today for young Italian tighthead Giosuè Zilocchi. He may be great in the loose, but the Zebre prop put in one of the worst scrummaging performances I have seen in professional rugby. Every scrum saw him set up with his legs so far back that his body was almost perfectly aligned from head to toe – not a good scrummaging position at all as it left him unable to keep the scrum up the moment it began to move on his side. By the time that he had been replaced at the half-hour mark, he had already given away 3 penalties.

I can understand why the coaching staff want him involved, as he showed his abilities in the loose when an injury to his replacement Marco Riccioni forced him back on for the final 25 minutes (which were thankfully light on scrums), but with the scrum such a vital part of the game, play like that made him a liability.

This performance from Zilocchi has left me with some big questions. Has he been scrummaging like this in training or did this suddenly happen in the match? If this has happened out of nowhere in the match, why has this happened? If this has been happening in training, why was he selected if the coaches had not been able to get him scrummaging properly? The coaching team have had limited time with the squad, but this was something that would be obvious to an observer.

Hopefully Zilocchi can improve his technique over the coming fortnight.

Scotland

What has happened to this Scotland side? Even though they have struggled to win games at times over the last few years, one of their big positives has been the tries they score. Now they are seriously struggling to cross the line. Their 3 tries in this game were their first in the tournament… and even 2 of these were from counterattacks rather than structured attacking play – Stuart Hogg exploiting a mismatch when running back a kick and Adam Hastings sneaking away down the blind side following a turnover.

I’ve talked about how Scotland needed to get more of a balance to the squad between hard runners and flair players – which they now have – and supporting better around the park, but despite this, they could still barely break down the Italian defence. For me, some big changes need making over these final 2 rounds: Rory Hutchinson needs to be given a starting spot and Darcy Graham needs to return to the wing if he is fit.

Ideally as well would be the return of Finn Russell, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening while Gregor Townsend remains in charge. Right now, that could sound the death knell for Townsend’s time as head coach.


My standout players

Such was the disappointment in Scotland’s performance, the only players who really stood out to me for them were flankers Hamish Watson (who was named Man of the Match) and Jamie Ritchie, who made the breakdown a nightmare for the Italians with a number of turnovers, while they also played key roles in one of Scotland’s more promising attacks.

For Italy, the back three of Matteo Minozzi, Jayden Hayward and Mattia Bellini were limited in their chances to attack, but took them well when they arose, looking far more exciting than their opposite numbers. Bellini especially showed a set of hips that Shakira would be proud of on one first half break. Jake Polledri continued to stand out with his strong carrying and tireless tackling as well as a couple of big turnovers, while replacement back row Giovanni Licata also contributed well tot he defensive effort and made some big carries late in the game, so much so that I would love to see him start in the back row with Polledri and Braam Steyn in Round 4.

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Saturday’s second Round 2 match was a battle between Scotland and England at Murrayfield. The poor weather may have held off for the opening game of the day in Dublin, but it was at Edinburgh in full force, leading to a game full of handling errors and (often misplaced) kicks.

England went into halftime with a 0-3 lead, with Owen Farrell having missed a couple of penalties kicking into the wind, but the Scots came out firing in the second half and Adam Hastings pulled them level, but the Scots could not take advantage of their superiority and open up a lead, which proved costly as another mistake from Stuart Hogg put England in position for Ellis Genge to drive over for the only try of the game, leaving Hastings to kick a late penalty to earn a losing bonus point, with the final score 6-13.

Scotland

If you ever wanted to see the impact that momentum has on a game, you just need to watch the second half of this game. Coming out for the second half 0-3 down and playing into the wind, Scotland should have been in a worrying position, but an early break from Rory Sutherland put them right on the front foot and they refused to let up the pressure. They eventually came away with 3 points from that attack, but their tails were up and they were making the right calls, coping with the weather far better than England, who were continually kicking the ball out on the full. To fuel this momentum even more, Stuart Hogg made a great break down the left after fielding a kick, stepping his way past both Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph before slotting a grubber kick between Jonny May and George Furbank to the corner.

Scotland kept the pressure on, but the momentum started to shift as referee Pascal Gaüzère inexplicably missed/allowed the most obvious of rips on the floor from Kyle Sinckler 5m out from the England line, allowing England to clear deep into the Scotland half. The momentum then switched completely as Stuart Hogg completely failed to deal with a questioning kick from England, almost conceding a try but instead giving England a 5m scrum, which led to Genge’s try. Suddenly after this, it was Scotland who were unable to deal with the conditions and the call to take the 3 points with a late penalty was definitely the right one as it allowed them to come away from the match with something.

Obviously it’s not often that Scotland will play in such terrible conditions and they should be happy at how well they adapted to them, but they will look back at this as a game they should have won and they need to find ways to control the momentum of the game better.

England

Only England could come away from this match with a thoroughly undeserved win. This team completely failed to deal with the conditions and can consider themselves lucky that a couple of key moments went in their favour.

“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact same f***ing thing over and over again, expecting s*** to change. That is crazy.”

Vaas Montenegro – Far Cry 3

Watching this game, I couldn’t help feel that the coaches had drilled into the team to focus on kicking for the corners to turn the defence or putting the ball up high to test their handling… to the point that nobody on the pitch had the strength of leadership to move away from this tactic. After Elliot Daly made a great break down the left wing, there was a great chance for England to work an overlap to put Jonny May over in the corner, but Owen Farrell instead chose to put a grubber into the corner. Playing with the wind behind them in the second half, Willi Heinz put 3 touchline box kicks out on the full, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Elliot Daly all found their kicks going too long with astounding regularity.

Last week, England tried to run Jonathan Joseph hard at the France defence as if he was Manu Tuilagi. This week, they refused to go away from a kicking game that wasn’t working. How many more times will England continue to just do the same thing over and over again when it’s clearly not working?

Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?


My standout players

In a day of horrible conditions, I need to give some respect to Adam Hastings for running the Scotland attack so well and dealing with the weather far better than England’s more experienced playmakers.

Tom Curry had a much better game at the back of the scrum and caused some mayhem at the breakdown alongside Sam Underhill.

The big standout player for me, though, was George Furbank. After a debut to forget last week, these kind of conditions were the last thing he would have anted, but he dealt with them well and really grew into the game, looking one of the more assured players in the England back line.

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Ireland kicked off their first Six Nations campaign under Andy Farrell with a match at home against Scotland. The two teams faced off in their first match at the Rugby World Cup, where Ireland thoroughly outplayed their fellow Home Nation, but this was a much closer affair.

Scotland had some disruptions in the build-up to the match with Finn Russell being stood down for “breaching team protocol”, but his replacement Adam Hastings gave Scotland an early lead off the tee before Johnny Sexton crossed the whitewash for a try which he converted – he went on to score all of Ireland’s points in this match. Stuart Hogg was the new Scotland captain after having asked for the role and it looked like he had scored a try of his own, only for replays to show that he has lost possession of the ball as he went over – a costly error as Ireland went on to win 19-12.

Ireland

When I looked at Ireland in my RWC2019 Debriefs, I mentioned that I felt the time of relying on Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton should be coming to an end for Ireland. Apparently Andy Farrell thought otherwise as he chose to stick with both of them, despite having one of the form players in Europe (John Cooney) in his squad.

In this match, I wouldn’t necessarily criticise the performances of either player, nor Peter O’Mahony or Devin Toner – who was left out of the World Cup squad – but I also don’t feel that any of them put in truly standout performances, aside from Murray and Sexton’s link for the try. To be frank, Ireland were there for the taking and were lucky that Scotland struggled in a key area (more on that below).

Personally, I thought that Cooney really improved the tempo when he was introduced for the last quarter, while Jordan Larmour gave a real spark in the 15 jersey that it looks like he has inherited from Rob Kearney. Right now, I’m not sure if someone is ready to step up and replace Sexton, but they need to start getting regular gametime to build up that experience. If I was Andy Farrell, I would take advantage of Cooney’s form to bring him into the 9 shirt and make him a fixture in the XV this season. That way, they can build to make the transition to a new 10 as Sexton (probably) tours with the Lions.

Scotland

Last year, Scotland’s issue was that they did not have the right balance to their team. They did not have the physical carriers to help them earn the right to go wide. Against Ireland this weekend, the balance as there and Scotland were fully able to hold their own against the Irish. Unfortunately, it looks like they are still trying to get used to this.

While they often got into the Irish 22, the only time they made it across the line was when Stuart Hogg knocked on. Otherwise, a number of attacks came to an end as Ireland managed to get latched onto the tackled ball carrier and either complete the turnover or win the penalty. This happened far too often and arguably cost the Scots the game.

Scotland need to make sure that as well as trucking it up the middle, they are getting the support men there to secure quick ball. If they can make this little change, they will be deadly!


My standout players

CJ Stander was another player who I had previously said needed to step up and earn his place back, and he certainly did that on Saturday, carrying hard and regularly while also earning a couple of key turnovers, all while having to adapt from playing 6 to moving to number 8 just a few minutes in following Caelan Doris’ early head injury.

The aforementioned Jordan Larmour also put in another strong counterattacking performance at 15 and will have put himself in a good position to make the position his own for the coming years.

For Scotland, Adam Hastings put in an assured performance, controlling the game well and putting his team in the right areas of the pitch. His performance here should reassure Scotland fans that they can still be competitive without Finn Russell if his absence continues.

In the back row, Hamish Waston continued to show himself to be one of the key players on the team. The flanker was a constant nuisance at rucks and mauls and one great break was a timely reminder of his ability with ball in hand.

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

It’s that time of year again: the Six Nations is just one week away! This season will see 4 of the 6 nations going into the tournament with new head coaches as everybody looks to move on from the 2019 Rugby World Cup and begin a 4-year build towards glory in France in 2023.

It has become a custom of mine to look at each nation’s squad ahead of the tournament to pick out one player per team that is not widely known on the international scene, but that you should keep an eye on this season. Do you think I missed someone? Let me know in the comments.

England

England come into the tournament with 8 uncapped players in their squad, but I think the one most likely to have an impact on this Six Nations is Ben Earl. The 22-year-old covers the entire back row and with no specialist number 8 in the squad, I think that he has a very good chance of making the shirt his own throughout the tournament. He has been developing well at Sarries for a couple of seasons, but this has truly been his breakout season and after 8 rounds of Premiership Rugby action, he is the top try scorer (6) and joint 2ⁿᵈ (but top among just forwards) for clean breaks (12). While combining him with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill may leave a back row with limited international experience, it is one that should never be taken lightly.

France

So this is a bit of a difficult one as France have selected a whopping 19 uncapped players, but due to Top 14 rugby not being available to watch in the UK currently, I have had limited opportunity to see these players in action. Matthieu Jalibert and Louis Carbonel create a great trio of young fly halves along with Romain Ntamack. For this pick, I have gone with Camille Chat, who is a little more experienced with 26 caps to his name, but has often been second fiddle to former captain Guilhem Guirado. Already and experience international but now given the chance to come out of his shadow, Chat has a chance to show his quality and become the man at hooker for the next 2 World Cup cycles.

Ireland

If Andy Farrell wants to be taken seriously as Ireland’s new head coach, then Conor Murray’s tenure as Ireland’s starting scrum half will be coming to an end, with John Cooney taking over the number 9 shirt. The Ulster halfback is one of the form players in Europe at the moment, with 5 tries and a super-reliable boot leaving him the top point scorer from the Champions Cup pool stages. Murray and Johnny Sexton are not getting any younger and it feel like this could be the moment that Cooney establishes himself as the man for this World Cup cycle.

Italy

So regular readers will know my love for Jake Polledri and after good performances in the World Cup, this will be the moment that he truly breaks out into an international superstar. The Gloucester back row can play at flanker or number 8 and will be a fantastic replacement for the departing Sergio Parisse. Polledri is deceptively strong and hard to put down – it is vary rare that he will go backwards in contact – but he also has good pace to exploit any gap that opens in front of him and will cause problems at the break down too.

Scotland

Judging by his form in 2019 and the early weeks of 2020, Gregor Townsend must seriously be regretting leaving Rory Hutchinson out of his World Cup squad. The Northampton centre is capable of slotting in at either 12 or 13 and brings and incredible attacking talent to the team. He has the potential to have the same positive impact that Huw Jones had when he first came into the Scotland squad and should be one of the players they build around over the coming years.

Wales

I really wanted to pick Louis Rees-Zammit here and also want to give an honourable mention to Nick Tompkins, but there is a player who I have loved watching for a couple of years and is now eligible for Wales: Johnny McNicholl. The Scarlets star is an exceptional attacking talent either at wing or fullback, finishing in the top 5 for tries scored in the Pro14 for the last 2 seasons – despite Scarlet’s struggles last season! Already 29, he will not be around long term, but I expect him to quickly establish himself as a key part of the Wales squad for the next 4 years.


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The RWC2019 Debrief: Scotland

The RWC2019 Debrief: Scotland

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

As I near the end of the alphabetical list, today I will be looking at Scotland.

RWC2019 Qualification

Having reached the quarterfinals of RWC2015, the Scots automatically qualified for the 2019 tournament.

2019 Form

Scotland finished 5ᵗʰ in the Six Nations, with their only win in the tournament a 33-20 win at home to Italy. They did, however come back from a 31-0 deficit at Twickenham to draw 38-38 with England – a match where they almost won but for a converted try from George Ford on the final play. In their warm-up matches, they won home and away against Georgia and won at home to France, while Les Bleus dominated the reverse fixture for a 32-3 win.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3ʳᵈ in Pool A)
    • Ireland 27-3 Scotland
    • Scotland 34-0 Samoa
    • Scotland 61-0 Russia
    • Japan 28-21 Scotland

It may sound harsh to say, but Scotland’s World Cup was all-but over just 25 minutes into their opening match. They were completely manhandled by the Irish pack and by that point were already 3 tries down, while things soon got even worse as one of their elite players, Hamish Watson, suffered a knee injury that brought his tournament to an end after just 38 minutes. The team started well with a high-tempo attack but had no answer for the Irish physicality.

Changes in the back row led to a more physical performance against Samoa, which arguably gave their team a better balance, while they used the set pieces as weapons on their way to a convincing win over an ill-disciplined Samoan team. Against the Russians, the Scots let loose with a more attack-minded team that probably couldn’t have held up against stronger opposition, but was able to put Russia to the sword, with Adam Hastings contributing 26 points.

Other results in the pool meant that their game against Japan would see the winner qualify for the knockouts at the expense of the other team. What followed was one of the most exciting matches in the tournament as both teams went all-out with high-tempo attacking performances. While Jamie Ritchie (who was one of the stars of the tournament) put in a huge defensive effort and earned a number of turnovers, the team on the whole could not sufficiently halt the Japanese attack, while the Scots were unable to control the game effectively enough against a high pressure defence from the Brave Blossoms.

Looking Ahead

For so long now, Scotland have been a team that look like they are on the up, only to disappoint. However, I still feel confident that they are going in the right direction. While some influential players of recent years have reached the end of their international careers (such as John Barclay and Tommy Seymour), there are young players already establishing themselves in this squad who will be entering their prime come the next tournament, such as Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury, Darcy Graham, Zander Fagerson, George Horne, Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings and Rory Hutchinson – who in hindsight should have definitely been in the World Cup squad.

Scotland have the skillful players to run a high-tempo attack that teams will struggle to deal with, but they have not balanced that over the last couple of years with the more physical runners to make the hard yards to initially put them on the front foot. In players like Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson and Blade Thomson, they have players who should be regulars over the next 4 years and can carry the team forward and give them the physical edge they need to take their game to the next level.

The key right now is getting that balance between physical players and faster, lighter players over the next couple of seasons. Greig Laidlaw is a quality player, but Ali Price and George Horne are much better fits for the style of play, while Ryan Wilson will likely take on more of a supporting role as the team build leaders. Key will also be finding the right centre combination to get the best out of Finn Russell and the rest of the back line, creating a solid defensive midfield that will not leak tries, but also causing teams issues when they attack. If Hutchinson is not starting for Scotland in the Six Nations, I will be in shock!

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool A

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool A

We are just days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his All Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.

With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations articles, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Who are you looking out for during the tournament? Today, we’ll start with a look at Pool A:

Ireland

Ireland were not the easiest team to pick a lesser-known player to look at here, as the majority of their regular starters are now so well established in international rugby. Eventually I settled on a player that regular readers will already know I am a big fan of. Tadhg Beirne was a star in the Scarlets squad and has carried on that form since moving to Munster. With Devin Toner and James Ryan having formed a regular partnership, injury harmed Beirne’s chances of forcing himself into the starting XV during the Six Nations but he is a dangerous runner in the loose and with decent game time he has a good chance of topping the turnover charts in a match.

Scotland

There were a few players I could have picked for Scotland, with honourable mentions going to Jamie Ritchie, Sam Johnson and Blair Kinghorn, but the pick here goes to Darcy Graham. The Edinburgh wing only made his Scotland debut against Wales in November, but has impressed with 5 tries in 7 appearances. With a good blend of pace and power, I expect him to be part of their ideal back 3 and think he can keep his scoring record going through the tournament.

Japan

Michael Leitch is the big name in this squad but his back row partner Amanaki Mafi also deserves a mention. While off-field issues have blighted his time with Bath and the Melbourne Rebels, he is a quality player and with 9 tries in 24 Tests, he will be looking to shine in this tournament. If Japan want to qualify for the knockouts, they need players like him at the top of their game.

Russia

This will likely be a last World Cup for many of the big named in the Russian back line, including 32-year-old Vladimir Ostroushko. A name that may be familiar to fans of the World Rugby Sevens Series, he will bring experience to the back line and also cause real damage to a team that gives him too much space. With 25 tries from 47 games, he could be key in their matches against Japan and Samoa.

Samoa

When looking through the Samoa squad, the name that stuck out to me was that of Chris Vui. The Bristol skipper was probably one of the best locks in the Premiership last season but still went somewhat under the radar due to the incredible performances of some of his teammates. Able to cover lock or the back row, Vui brings a great blend of strength, mobility and ball-handling skills to stand out from the crowd.


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Eyes On: Scotland v Georgia – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Scotland v Georgia – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After making history by being the first Tier 1 Nation to play in Tbilisi last weekend, Scotland returned to Murrayfield to take on Georgia again in their final warm-up match ahead of the World Cup. After each team knocked on with the line at their mercy, Scotland took the lead through tries from Ali Price and Blair Kinghorn, while 3 penalties from young fly half Tedo Abzhandadze kept the Lelos just 1 point behind at half time. A try from Sam Johnson extended the lead from Scotland, who ran away with it in the final 15 minutes with tries through Darcy Graham, George Horne and Pete Horne, for a final score of 36-9.

 

Scotland

Playing this close to the World Cup is risky and it may have backfired for Scotland on Friday night. The Scots had a number of players leave the pitch early. Blair Kinghorn had started the match well but left the pitch soon after his try with a head injury and did not return. Richie Gray was removed at half time in his first appearance during these warm-ups as a precaution following a tight hamstring. Jamie Ritchie came off with a facial injury early in the second half and is now at risk of missing the tournament (Magnus Bradbury will travel to Japan with the squad in case Ritchie has to pull out). Ben Toolis, who had come on for Gray, only lasted 25 minutes before being removed for a head injury of his own.

While it is obviously not ideal for so many players to suffer injuries (especially head injuries) this close to the tournament, this may have actually given the team some good experience of coping with a limited squad. With the Horne Brothers and Chris Harris covering the backs on the bench, it looks like the back 3 were expected to play the full 80 minutes, but they reacted well to losing Kinghorn by moving Tommy Seymour to 15 and introducing Chris Harris on the wing. With Toolis an Bradbury having already come on, there was no more back row/lock cover on the bench when Toolis had to be removed, so George Turner was moved to cover in the back row and Grant Stewart came on at hooker.

With only 8 spots on the bench and 31 places in a World Cup squad, it is always going to be hard to effectively cover every position. As such, having players with the intangibles to cover multiple positions will be invaluable to Scotland as the matches start to come thick and fast.

Georgia

While they did not play poorly last week, this performance from Georgia was miles better. The Lelos weren’t just there to make up the numbers, they were genuinely in the game until the final 15 minutes. With the game being much more even, it allowed some of their players to really shine.

At just 20 years old, Tedo Abzhandadze appears to have established himself as the starter and looks like he will be a star for the next few cycles. In this match, the young fly half gave the full repertoire: controlling his back line well, making plays with his feet and kicking well for territory, while he also had a relatively good day off the boot, hitting 3 of his 4 kicks. Sticking with the backs and Soso Matiashvili had a great game. The fullback ran for 89 metres (the next closest was Darcy Graham’s 57m) and beat 11 defenders (nobody else beat more than 5).

For so long, the Georgians have just been talked about in terms of their pack. While the pack is obviously still a big weapon, it is great to see the team getting some stars in the back line to take them to a new level. Australia, Wales and Fiji will have a fight on their hands for the top 3 spots in Pool D.


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Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

It was a historic day on Saturday as Tbilisi’s Dinamo Arena hosted Georgia’s first home match against a Tier 1 nation. Scotland put out a strong team and it paid dividends, as tries from Ben Toolis and Rory Hutchinson helped to open up a 3-23 halftime lead. In the second half, a second for Hutchinson and tries for Darcy Graham and Scott Cummings confirmed the 10-44 victory, with Karlen Asieshvili’s try giving the home fans something to cheer.

Georgia

With Georgia not often playing against Tier 1 opposition on televised channels, it’s not very often that I get to watch them play outside of the World Cups. However, from what I have seen in recent seasons, the calls for them to replace Italy in the Six Nations are ridiculous.

In this game, Finn Russell and the Scottish team played well, but it was made easy for them as the Georgians struggled to cope with the quality of rugby they were forced to defend against. It was far too easy for Scotland to cut them apart – it felt like a highly physical training game too often. When they did manage to stop the Scots cutting them apart, it generally ended with them gifting Scotland points or territory through a penalty. Meanwhile, too many of their attacks ended in costly handling errors. The gulf in class was obvious and something that I also noticed when they played Italy during the 2018 November Tests.

This is not a critique of Georgia, more just a note that replacing Italy with them will not help anyone in the long run. There was plenty of good to see from the team: they kept going to the end, their catch and drive lineouts were a fantastic weapon and there is some quality coming trough the age groups, helped by incredible facilities. More than that, the crowd were amazing and the atmosphere seemed incredible when I was watching on TV. Georgia needs to be facing – and hosting – Tier 1 nations far more often. Directly replacing Italy in the Six Nations is not the answer, but they have outgrown the tournament they are in and something needs to be done to ensure Georgia is playing against better nations in order to continue improving.

Scotland

Georgia have become famous over the years for the strength of their pack. So many of the players who have made it into one of the top European leagues have been forwards. When you play against Georgia, you know that things will be tough in the scrum.

I make that point, so that when I say Scotland held their own in the scrums in this match, that achievement gets the recognition it deserves. Willem Nel has always been known as a good scrummager, but Allan Dell has improved so much over the recent years to make the number 1 shirt his own. Perhaps even more impressive is that their replacements Zander Fagerson and Jamie Bhatti also managed to keep the balance at the set piece.

Earlier that day, Ireland’s pack were in devastating form against Wales. With Ireland and Scotland likely facing off for the top spot in their pool, being able to nullify the Irish scrum could be a key factor in that match.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

So, for this I will only be focusing on the Scots for 2 reasons: 1. I don’t know enough about the Georgians to know where they have depth, and 2. By the time I post this, they will have already announced their squad!

Rory Hutchinson‘s rise at Northampton this year was already a great story, but I thought an international call-up was too soon. He has looked better with each appearance however and with 2 extremely well-taken tries on his first start, I think that he has put himself in a great position to force his way in as a bolter. I also thought that another great all-round performance from Darcy Graham, including dotting down Finn Russell’s grubber for a try, will have been enough to secure his seat on the plane.

Huw Jones is a quality player and a few years back I considered him one of the best 13s in international rugby, but the centre position suddenly looks extremely deep and he struggled to make an impact after replacing Sam Johnson in this game. I also think that Matt Fagerson will have been disappointed to be removed as he has had very little time on the pitch to prove himself worthy of a spot in the squad.


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Eyes On: Scotland v France – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Scotland v France – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After last weekend’s mauling in Nice, Scotland were back at Murrayfield facing off against France once again in their warm-up towards the World Cup. Last week, France scored their opening try within 2 minutes and it happened again on Saturday as Damian Penaud intercepted Peter Horne to dot down under the posts. Penaud scored again before Sean Maitland crossed just before half time to make the score 10-14. Les Bleus failed to add to their score after the break, while Chris Harris burst over for the winning try and Greig Laidlaw kicked the conversion for a 17-14 final score.

 

Scotland

Ireland were not the only ones who struggled at the lineout on Saturday. George Turner is a great talent, but he was having a nightmare with his throwing in this match. While part of this can be down to French pressure and unfamiliar combinations in the Scotland squad, there were also some individual mistakes such as the quick throw to Ryan Wilson at the front, where he had placed himself too far over to the French side and threw directly to Wilson, making the skewed throw incredibly obvious.

The lineout is such a vital piece of professional rugby, Scotland will be hoping Fraser Brown returns from injury soon to give more options at hooker. That way, Scotland can rely on the experienced pair of Brown and Stuart McInally in the big games and take Turner as a 3ʳᵈ option to use in the easier pool matches.

France

The oft-said cliché about the France national team is that you never know which team will turn up on the day. While they were far from perfect on Saturday, there was enough on show to suggest that – if they can put such clichés behind them and remain consistent – they have the makings of a great squad to not just compete in Japan, but also work through the next 4 year cycle with a view to RWC2023.

Damian Penaud is one of the form wingers in international rugby at the moment, and at 22 years old will be around for a long time. Other starters on Saturday include, Antoine Dupont (22), Alivereti Raka (24), Thomas Ramos (24), Félix Lambey (25), Arthur Iturria (25), Grégory Alldritt (22), while Gaël Fickou (25) was also meant to start before having to pull out through injury. On the bench, it feels like Camille Chat has been around forever, but he is only 23, and he was joined by fellow youngsters Cyril Baille (25), Emerick Setiano (23), Yacouba Camara (25), Baptiste Serin (25) and Romain Ntamack (20). Straight away, we can see a great young core to base the squad around for the next 4+ years, while there were also plenty of players in the squad who are slightly older but would still only be in their early 30s come the next tournament.

This year’s tournament may be too early for them, but with the right organisation, they could be a great shout for RWC2023.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Centre Chris Harris may have to delay his Gloucester debut as he has likely moved himself up the pecking order for Scotland with a good all-round performance that was capped off with a try. Gordon Reid also put in a very strong performance in the scrum and his experience will likely see him make it onto the plane to Japan.

After having much of last season wrote off due to concussion issues, seeing Blade Thomson leave the pitch early with a head injury will have been concerning and I think has left him with too few opportunities to earn a spot on the plane. Likewise, Tommy Seymour will be worried for his place in a deep back 3 after an injury saw him replaced early.


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