Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Sunday saw round 2 of the Autumn Nations Cup come to an end at Murrayfield as Scotland hosted France. The French were finally kicking off their campaign following the cancellation of their match with Fiji and they got off to the quicker start as Thomas Ramos landed an early penalty. Les Bleus thought for a moment that they had the opening try after 9 minutes as Virimi Vakatawa and Blair Kinghorn both dived on a kick through, but replays showed that the centre did not have control of the ball and France had to settle for another Ramos penalty. The Scots finally built into the game and 2 penalties from Duncan Weir drew things level, but Matthieu Jalibert hit back with a drop goal. As the tussle for supremacy continued, Ramos added another penalty and Weir added one of his own, before a gargantuan scrum earned the French a penalty at the end of the half. Instead of going for the 3 pints, they went to the corner, and after going through the phases, Vakatawa crossed the line but was held up, keeping the halftime score level at 0-0.

Following the break it as another scrum that saw the breakthrough, but this time it was the movement of the backs off first phase, as Gaël Fickou’s inside pass set Vincent Rattez free and the winger fed Vakatawa to cross for the opening try, which Ramos converted. Scotland hit back with another penalty soon after, but could find no breakthrough, and Ramos added another penalty on the hour to make it a 7-point game. Ramos had the chance to seal the win with another late penalty but missed the target, leaving Scotland with the chance to snatch a draw. They got a chance as Wayne Barnes awarded them a penalty in midfield with the clock in the red, and the Scots looked to the big boot f Stuart Hogg to put them as close to the corner as possible. Unfortunately the captain put a little too much on the kick and the ball sailed into the dead ball area, allowing France to clear and celebrate a 15-22 win that will leave them as favourites to top the pool.

Formidable front row

As if the talent in the French back line wasn’t scary enough, this match really highlighted the quality of the pack, and especially the front row. In Jean-Baptiste Gros, Camille Chat and Demba Bamba, Les Bleus were putting out what would be considered their second-choice front row (judging by recent matches), and yet they were still dominant, highlighted by a monster scrum just before halftime that saw them demolish the Scottish pack and earn a penalty. Then when the usual starters came on in Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand and Mohamed Haouas came on, it was just more of the same.

In Marchand and Chat, France have 2 hookers who would waltz into most national teams and could conceivably both be considered in the top 5 in the world, with their strong carrying and their expert jackaling just adding to their reliability at the set piece. And in the 4 props you have expert scrummagers and some dynamic carriers.

And the scariest thing of all: the oldest of them is Baille at 27 years old! Most of these players are only just about coming into their prime or have still not reached it, and as such they are only likely to get better as the team builds towards a home World Cup.

Be very afraid…

Target acquired

Under Shaun Edwards, the French defence has become a nightmare to deal with. With such a physical unit and players so dangerous at the breakdown, Scotland knew that going head-to-head with them would end disastrously, so looked to a more territorial game.

However when you watch the kicks they were putting in, they were still looking for a way to fight the French with the kicks, often putting the high balls towards Thomas Ramos and Vincent Rattez, who are smaller and less able to compete in the air. You can also see that they were looking to target these players with their own selections in the back 3, with a 6’4 monster in Duhan van der Merwe and 2 fullbacks in Hogg and Blair Kinghorn, while Sean Maitland off the bench also covers both wing and 15.

By being able to pepper the smaller members of the French back 3 with high balls and have a high ball specialist or a bigger player competing against them in the air, Scotland were giving themselves a good chance of winning the ball further up the field and getting in behind the French line. Assuming England and France face off at the end of the tournament, it will be interesting to see if England do similar, utilising Jonny May and Anthony Watson.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Italy v Scotland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Italy v Scotland

The first week of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup continued on Saturday with Scotland’s trip to Florence to face Italy.

The Italians continued to put faith in youth and it paid off early on as they started the stronger team, taking a 6-0 lead in the opening quarter through the boot of Paolo Garbisi. Scotland grew into the game and got a spell of possession in the Italian 22, which Duhan van der Merwe ended by crashing through the defence with a beautiful out to in line for the opening try of the game, converted by Duncan Weir. The Italians hit straight back, however, and when Garbisi set Marco Zanon clear down the left wing, the backs kept the ball moving and put Matteo Minozzi over in the corner for an 11-7 lead at halftime.

The second half started like the first, with Garbisi kicking a penalty, before a good passing move put Duncan Weir over in the corner, only for the try to be ruled out for a forward pass. The Scots soon had another try though, as Hamish Watson’s offload 5m from the line was tipped by an offside Jake Polledri into the hands of Zander Fagerson, who took advantage of everyone else on the pitch stopping (expecting a penalty) to lollop over the line, with Weir kicking the conversion to tie up the score. The Azzurri made some changes in the back line which upped the tempo, and put the pressure on the Scots, earning a penalty that Garbisi kicked to put them back ahead. However the Scots had a couple of decisions go their way from the restart, which left them in the Italian 22, and with Jake Polledri down inured, Scott Cummings managed to force his way over for a try converted by Weir. This try and the injury really seemed to sap the Italian spirit and Scotland took advantage, driving over a maul from close range to earn a bonus point 4ᵗʰ try through replacement hooker George Turner, which Weir converted to put the icing on a 17-28 victory that flattered the Scots.

Building again

For so long, Italy’s success came off the back of a dominant pack, that was somewhat let down by sub-par backs. In more recent years, the backs have improved, but those irreplaceable gladiators in the pack – Lo Cicero, Bortolami, Castrogiovanni, Parisse, Zanni, Bergamasco et al – were past their prime an retiring, with their replacements not ready to take their place. But in this game, we g a hint that the current crop are ready to compete at the top level and make those who came before them proud.

I wrote about the team’s desire against England and that was evident again this week, but it was joined by an incredible physicality. Led by Jake Polledri, Seb Negri, Niccolò Cannone and Danilo Fischetti – who was a menace on the day in the scrums and breakdowns – the whole pack rallied to ensure that if the first man failed to bring the Scot down, the second man definitely did. And that just encouraged the backs, with Marco Zanon and replacement centre Federico Mori making a positive and noticeable impact on the game.

The Scots were unable to get into a rhythm and the physicality was causing them to step beyond the bounds of legality more than usual to cope with them. Unfortunately, at a key point of the game after about an hour, with Italy growing in momentum, a couple of Scottish infringements deep in Italian territory were missed by the officials, leading to them getting possession in the Italy 22, and as George Turner powered off a maul, Jake Polledri hyperextended his knee making the challenge, leaving the Azzuri’s defensive line a man down, helping Cummings score as the Gloucester back row was stretchered off. It was clear that this negatively impacted the team as it took the life out of them, but make no mistake – if this Italian team can continue to put in the effort like this and build off the performance, that win is coming very soon.

Back in the fold

Scotland’s Super Saturday win over Wales came at a cost, with both Finn Russell and Adam Hastings being lost to injury. This led to a return to the squad for Duncan Weir, who has been in the form of his life since his move to Worcester.

4 years on from his last Test start, the fly half put in a great performance, getting the backline going and varying the play despite the Italian’s best efforts to keep the Scots on the back foot, while making sure they played in the right areas of the pitch to cause Italy problems and take advantage of any slip-ups. Oh, and 8 points with the boot certainly helped too. And much of this was done despite him suffering an eye injury in the second half that must have been hampering his vision!

If Weir can keep up these performances, he will have certainly earned the chance to remain a part of the Scotland squad once Hastings and Russell return.

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Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

The longest Six nations in history reached it’s final day with a customary Super Saturday. What was not so customary was the location, as Llanelli’s Parc y Scarlets played host to Wales and Scotland.

The swirling winds proved a nightmare for both sides, with a Finn Russell penalty the only points of the opening quarter. The first try came on the half hour mark, as a Scottish throw to the back of the lineout in their own 22 went too far and set up Rhys Carré for the opening try. Dan Biggar kicked the conversion and things got worse for the Scots as Finn Russell left the field injured. The Scots had a half-chance right before halftime, and though they were unable to convert it, they did win a penalty which Adam Hastings kicked to reduce the deficit at the break to a point.

The game remained close after the restart, but Scotland got the breakthrough as a catch and drive lineout resulted in Stuart McInally crossing for a try in the corner. With Dan Biggar having gone off injured, Leigh Halfenny kicked the Welsh back within a point, but the Scots got a kickable penalty at the death and, with Hastings now also off injured, Stuart Hogg kicked the 3 point to secure a 10-14 win, Scotland’s first win in Wales since 2002, and 4ᵗʰ place in the standings, while Wales’ first campaign under Wayne Pivac ended in a disappointing 5ᵗʰ place.

Record breaker

Probably the biggest disappointment about this result for Wales is that it came on the day that captain Alun Wyn Jones won his 149ᵗʰ cap to break Richie McCaw’s record for international caps.

The Ospreys lock has rightly become a legend of Welsh Rugby, having now earned 140 Test caps for Wales as well as 9 Test caps with the British and Irish Lions. A natural leader whether captain or not, he commands the lineout so well and will be putting in maximum effort from kickoff to the final whistle.

Like the man he is replacing at the top of the list of most Test caps, his relationship with the referees and his years of experience mean that he is able to not just toe the line of legality but push it to extremes without getting penalised.

Probably the greatest compliment that I can give him is that as a teammate or supporter, you love him, as an opponent, you hate him.

Van’s the man

While the selection of Blair Kinghorn on the wing was probably right for this match due to the way the swirling wind affected the high ball,  I can’t help but feel that the number 11 shirt should belong to Duhan van der Merwe moving forwards.

While Kinghorn is a talented player, he is also a more versatile player who could make an impact off the bench, while I would argue that the pairing of van der Merwe and Darcy Graham provides the most dangerous attacking tandem on the wings. But what van der Merwe also offers is the extra physicality that the Scots have often missed. By bringing him in off his wing, he provides a dangerous crash ball option, while if he can be put through a gap, he then has the pace to exploit it to the maximum.

Don’t be surprised to see the Edinburgh wing becoming a regular starter for Scotland in the Autumn Nations Cup and 2021 Six Nations, and potentially even making a late run for the British and Irish Lions touring party.

Welsh weakness

While van der Merwe adds to the Sottish physicality, the Welsh are really struggling in this area. Wales have fantastic players, but so many of them are lacking on the physical side, with small, technical back rowers and fast, agile wingers. While this can work to a degree, there are many teams who will require you to have a more physical edge in order to get the win.

This is even more evident right now with the loss of Hadleigh Parkes from the 12 shirt, while George North is a shadow of the player he used to be on the wing. While the inside centre position could be sorted in the coming years by Willis Haloholo and Johnny Williams, Wales needs to develop strong, mobile forwards to give the pack that extra oomph. Cory Hill and Will Rowlands could potentially be the guys in the second row but they need to prove it, as does Aaron Wainwright in the back row. Josh Navidi will always play above his strength, but ideally Wales also need Ross Moriarty to get back to his top form and bring back the physical running game he initially had when he first came on the scene with Wales and Gloucester.

If Wales can’t sort out their physical deficiencies soon, they could be in for some disappointing times.

Guinness Six Nations

Scotland v Georgia

Scotland v Georgia

With the resumption of the Six Nations and the new Autumn Nations Cup just around the corner, Scotland looked to get a preparatory Test match under their belt in a deserted BT Murrayfield against Georgia. The conclusion of last season’s Pro14 and beginning of this season’s league meant that the Scots had a fair amount of rugby already under their belt and they were the quicker team out of the blocks as Darcy Graham took a quick-tap penalty and forced his way over for the opening try within 2 minutes. Though the Lelos produced very little in attack, their defence held relatively firm for the next 25 minutes, until a stupid penalty from prop Lekso Kaulashvili allowed Scotland to kick to the corner and drive over from 5m out, with Fraser Brown dotting down in his first match as captain. Scotland were growing into the game and their next try came shortly after, as Hamish Watson was sent over in the corner to make the score 17-0, while replacement back row Cornell du Preez was just held up over the line with the final play of the half.

The Georgians struck first after the break and scored their first ever try at Murrayfield through Akaki Tabutsadze, with fly half Tedo Abzhandadze adding the extras. Any hopes of a Georgian comeback were swiftly denied as Fraser Brown dotted down from another driving maul, while his replacement Stuart McInally scored in similar fashion as the game reached the hour mark. As the Lelos began to tire, the Scots began to run riot with a 10/12 combination of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings, and an inside pass put debutant Duhan van der Merwe through to score under the posts. With Georgia’s replacement scrum half in the bin for the final 10 minutes following a deliberate knock-on, Scotland found themselves with another 5m lineout, but rather than drive this one over, they drew in the Georgian pack to defend the maul before breaking off to the blind side, with McInally and George Horne putting Graham over for his second try. As the clock ticked down, Blair Kinghorn played a hopeful kick forward but his chase looked in vain until Giorgi Kveseladze misread the bouncing ball and saw it go through his legs, leaving Kinghorn with a simple finish, which Hastings converting for a final score of 48-7.

Rusty Lelos

While Scots had the benefit of the Pro14 to get back to match readiness ahead of this match, many of the Lelos were coming in having not played a game… and it really showed! Though their defence did a good job of holding out for the most part in open play, they were not able to cause any real problems for the attacking Scots and they were completely dominated by the Scottish catch and drive. Meanwhile, the Georgian attack only had 2 moments of note: 1 driving maul that earned a penalty and the Tabutsadze try. Aside from that, they struggled for most of the match to make any positive metres in attack – and when they did, they usually ended up getting turned over – and this led to Abzhandadze having to play from a deeper position, which stopped the backs having any real influence on the game.

With the French-based Lelos going back to their clubs next week, then games against England, Wales and Ireland on subsequent weekends (how these Autumn Nations Cup pools can be considered balanced is beyond me!), the Lelos are going to have to work very hard to get anything from their Autumn.

Russell/Hastings axis

While the scots looked OK in attack over the first 55 minutes, they really came to life when Finn Russell came off the bench to replace James Lang, with Adam Hastings moving out to inside centre.

There was an immediate impact to the Scottish attack, as the ball was being spread more often and quicker, while there also appeared to be more variety to the play, such as the inside pass that put van der Merwe through to score. With George Horne coming on to up the tempo at 9 and 2 talented playmakers, the back line really came alive and this is what the team needs with 2 wingers as talented as van der Merwe and Graham. Of course, Stuart Hogg would add a playmaker option from 15 when he is available, but not to the same degree as a Russell/Hastings 10/12 axis.

Scotland will definitely face harder tests than the Georgian defence, but I would definitely be interested to see how this playmaker axis would work against Tier 1 defences.

Faceless villain

Regular readers of my articles will know that I have a soft spot for Tier 2 nations and them being given the chance to compete against and develop into Tier 1 nations. So imagine my disappointment at the way this match has been handled by the media for the British public.

While it was great to see the game on free-to-air television, the ITV4 broadcast saw 2 Scottish pundits (Jim Hamilton and Sir Ian McGeechan) who were only ever going to speak about their own nation. Then when it came to the match, we were left with Simon Ward and former Scotland international Scott Hastings, who were quick to praise the Scots for doing even the most basic thing right and barely made an effort to talk about the Lelos.

Even going onto the BBC Sport website, there were no articles ahead of the game announcing the Georgian squad (just the Scots) and the article titled “What you need to know about the Georgians” included no information about their style of play or star players, instead focusing on a previous national anthem faux pas, a shooting at the union’s offices and the fact that the union is bankrolled by a billionaire. With such pathetic reporting, the casual fan is unable to learn anything about the team and they are left as basically a faceless villain for the British heroes to face, and nobody is then going to champion the cause of getting them regular rugby in Tier 1 competitions – let’s not forget that Georgia are only in the Autumn Nations Cup this season because Japan pulled out!

The Lelos deserve more respect than this from the British media, and I hope that there is more balance during the Autumn Nations Cup.

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.


While watching the Six Nations is always fun anyway, one thing that has really improved it for me the last couple of seasons has been doing fantasy rugby with my friends, and I’m opening the opportunity for you to join in too!

I am running a fantasy rugby league on The Rugby Magazine’s website, and you are all welcome to join. There is no buy-in and no prize, this is just for fun. You can join the league here and use the Unique Token b6c1e40d48e6

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!