Scotland are the real deal

Jack Colwill Roar Rookie

By Jack Colwill, Jack Colwill is a Roar Rookie


22 Have your say

    In sport, as in all things, it’s the hope that kills you. It’s an adage that Scottish rugby fans, over the last few years, have come to appreciate.

    In the early 2000s, Scottish rugby was in a slump. There were the occasional spikes and milestones along the way – take Calcutta Cup victories over the Auld Enemy at Murrayfield in 2006 and 2008, for example – but there was a real sense of unfulfilled ambition; a feeling that the great heroes of sides past were not being done justice for their work.

    But on November 21, 2009, at a windy and wet Murrayfield, things started to subtly change.

    On that day, Scotland produced a magnificent defensive display (with the help of a last-minute missed conversion from Matt Giteau) to snap a streak of 16 straight defeats to Australia with a 9-8 triumph.

    The result sent shockwaves through international rugby – was the Scottish star on the rise again?

    As it turned out, it was not to be. Poor showings in the Six Nations in 2010-12 seemed to put Scotland right back where they started, with people quick to write them off.

    But then, again, they struck back against the criticism in the June of 2012, recording their first victory in Australia against the Wallabies since 1982, in Newcastle, making it consecutive victories against Australia to boot.

    Again, they failed to capitalise on the promise, being beaten comfortably by New Zealand and South Africa in the autumn. Yet it was the loss to Tonga in that same series that had fans worried. This team was infrequently showing that they had the tools to compete with some of the world’s top teams and yet they were finding themselves sent back to square one with alarming regularity.

    Their Six Nations form remained indifferent, if not poor, and yet on numerous occasions they were competitive against the might of the Southern Hemisphere in ways few fans would expect.

    What fan will ever forget Scotland being robbed of a famous victory in the 2015 World Cup quarter-finals by Craig Joubert’s unfortunate misreading of an offside situation? They followed it up with another heartbreakingly close loss to the Wallabies in the autumn internationals of the following year.

    That was the tale of Scottish rugby until 2017 – a rocky road with several moments that promised great things against more established opposition from elsewhere in the world, but failing to back it up and really create a sense of competitiveness when they came head-to-head with their Home Nations neighbours.

    However, three wins in the 2017 Six Nations – their best return in a number of years – and a performance at Twickenham against England that belied their eventual 61-21 defeat, was a cause for optimism.

    This was backed up by a barnstorming performance against the All Blacks that so nearly brought them a famous victory, and an absolute masterclass that put a reinvigorated Australia, who have themselves beaten New Zealand this year, to the sword in some style.

    Since the autumn internationals of 2016, momentum has built, and has finally, seemingly, come to bear in the shape of a Scotland side that is confident, skillful, determined and ready to go toe-to-toe with anyone.

    So, before looking ahead, we must ask: what is it about the 2017 Scotland team that made the difference?

    Consistent selection
    Back in the dark days, the Scottish side was chopped and changed so much, with new players ousted after one unremarkable performance, that it was impossible to develop combinations and allow a team spirit to manifest.

    However, they now have a settled spine in the brilliance of Stuart Hogg at fullback, Finn Russell taking control of the 10 shirt, the leadership and accuracy of Greig Laidlaw at scrum half, the world-wisdom and work rate of John Barclay and the Gray brothers in the back-five forwards, and the development of a genuinely competitive scrum unit in the shape of WP Nel and Darryl Marfo, ably supported by the likes of Zander Fagerson.

    While I have my reservations about Greig Laidlaw despite his obvious qualities – it was telling, for example, that Scotland produced their best attacking displays of a generation this autumn when he was injured – this consistency of selection does wonders for any team.

    Scotland's Stuart Hogg

    AP Photo/Scott Heppell

    Stardust in the backs
    There was a time when tries were so hard to come by in Scottish rugby. In 2008, for example, Scotland had not scored one at Murrayfield for over a year. Yet skip on nine years, and they put eight past Australia.

    This clearly to a backline that is brimming not only with talent, but the mental strength and accuracy to convert their chances.

    Hogg at fullback is one of the great stars of world rugby, and has already been discussed as Scotland’s greatest ever player (a tad premature, but you can see why). Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser are starting to prove themselves as genuine finishers, while the likes of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones in the centres are showing their class too.

    Add to that a more experienced and confident Russell in the 10 shirt (incidentally under the guidance of perhaps Scotland’s best ever 10, but I’ll come to that), and you suddenly have a backline that can look threatening on every attacking phase.

    Strength in depth
    Pinpointing which names to use in the previous section was a difficult task, and that leads me onto the fact that Scotland now has the kind of strength in depth they couldn’t have possibly imagined five years ago.

    The fact that Scotland put so many points past Australia without the likes of Hogg, Laidlaw and Alex Dunbar highlights the fact that there are players outside their best team who can genuinely compete for places.

    I look at Sean Maitland, Lee Jones and Byron McGuigan (who was excellent on debut against the Wallabies, incidentally) in the back three, Peter Horne and World Cup (almost) hero Mark Bennett in the centres, Ali Price and Henry Pyrgios competing for the 9 shirt (and that’s not even mentioning Sam Hidalgo-Clyne). And that’s just the backs.

    John Hardie was absent in the autumn, but Hamish Watson has done his job with aplomb, and guys like Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis are giving the Gray brothers a run for their money.

    Scotland is seriously stacked with talent, meaning that if they get injuries, it just gives someone else an opportunity – that is how the best sides work.

    Gregor Townsend
    TArguably biggie. Argubaly Scotland’s greatest No.10, Gregor Townsend took the Scotland job this summer with much fanfare, given his remarkable achievements at Glasgow Warriors over the last few years.

    Already, he has stamped his mark on this side in a way that cannot be overlooked. He seems to have completely taken the leash off and imbued them with the confidence that they really can go toe-to-toe with the best.

    Other Scottish coaches of years past, sadly, took too much of an attitude of defensive rugby against the best, which meant the attacking side of their game had no chance to develop. But Townsend has clearly not only encouraged them to attack but to take risks, to chance their arm, and it has worked wonders.

    That kind of system gets the best out of your star players, like Hogg, and it also gives the team the confidence that their coach believes in them and thinks they can do it. It is hard to over-estimate how much of a lift that would have been to the squad.

    As a side note, Townsend’s knowledge and wisdom about playing 10 at international level is being channelled into Finn Russell, and the results are showing. His game management is coming on leaps and bounds, they now play to Russell’s spontaneous and imaginative nature, and he has been given control of this team. Player, play on.

    So there it is – the conclusions I have drawn that make me think that, this time, Scotland are the real deal.

    But that comes with one caveat – they need to prove it in the 2018 Six Nations. Their record of getting up for games against the big sides and falling down against lesser nations is their Achilles heel – with all their success, they still lost to Fiji and got a scare from Samoa this year, so that says there is still work to be done.

    If they can make a genuine play at the Six Nations title next year, it will confirm that Scotland are here to stay.

    All the evidence and the change in their setup points to a foundation being built for a long-term successful side – now they just have to prove it to the world.

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    The Crowd Says (22)

    • November 29th 2017 @ 8:54am
      David said | November 29th 2017 @ 8:54am | ! Report

      I genuinely believe Scotland will win the 2018 6 Nations. And I’m English.

      • November 29th 2017 @ 9:00am
        Fionn said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:00am | ! Report

        David, I think it should hopefully be one of the most entertaining and exciting 6N for many a year. England have to be considered favourites, but Ireland and Scotland should both have every reason to believe that they too can win it.

        Can’t wait for it to start!

        • November 29th 2017 @ 10:15am
          David said | November 29th 2017 @ 10:15am | ! Report

          Oh definitely! I’m very pleased the fixture list means England have Ireland at home, Ireland have Scotland at home and Scotland have England at home- it adds that extra spice that, going into the final weekend (and assuming the home side are the winning side in these fixtures) that it can really go down to the wire. I’ve been watching this Scotland side develop for a while now- and been very excited about them- and this season I think they’ll finally announce themselves as here to stay as one of the top dogs.

      • November 29th 2017 @ 9:38am
        Connor33 said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:38am | ! Report

        Dave – I am with you. I dare say it will come down to bonus point and for and against between Scotland, Ireland and England.

        Right now: Scotland or Ireland are the best of the North, perhaps the former given the Scots played NZ and AU back to back and would have been deserved winners in both.

        Their defense is great, but their running line are the most impressive in the world right now.

        • November 29th 2017 @ 10:17am
          David said | November 29th 2017 @ 10:17am | ! Report

          If you think that Scotland or Ireland are the best at the moment, then is say it’s Scotland with the advantage during the 6 Nations- England haven’t hit their heights this autumn but I still can’t see them losing at Twickenham in the 6N (they haven’t since 2012 now), so I think Scotland hosting them this year will be a big bonus for them.

        • November 29th 2017 @ 3:35pm
          Josh29 said | November 29th 2017 @ 3:35pm | ! Report

          I don’t see how they would have been deserved winners against NZ. Have been reading a lot of comments about how unlucky Scotland were and I totally disagree. Their last try should have been disallowed as Jones was a meter in front of Hogg when Hogg kicked the ball. The ABs also blew an easy try around the 60 minute mark when Taylor delayed his pass to Cane and it was intercepted by the Scottish player.

          Scotland were lucky to get so close if anything.

        • November 29th 2017 @ 3:47pm
          Neil Back said | November 29th 2017 @ 3:47pm | ! Report

          You have to do so much better than that Con, to get a rise from an Englishman.

    • November 29th 2017 @ 9:44am
      Jock Cornet said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:44am | ! Report

      I think Ireland will win 6N and England and Scotland fighting for 2nd.

    • Roar Guru

      November 29th 2017 @ 9:50am
      Machooka said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:50am | ! Report

      Your time has arrived young Jack Colwill… and rightly so I might add.

      Scotland has been promising so much, for so long, that presently they now have a good solid team. Not a flashy team. But a good solid team that on their day will be a handful for the very best in the world.

      The upcoming 6Ns will provide them with opportunity to stake their claim as a team to be reckoned with. It won’t be easy, but it never is a the pointy end eh.

      Success and Scotland in the same sentence… it’s been way too long for that to be said. Stated. Scotland!

    • November 29th 2017 @ 9:52am
      Misha said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:52am | ! Report

      Great article

      Re: What fan will ever forget Scotland being robbed of a famous victory in the 2015 World Cup quarter-finals by Craig Joubert’s unfortunate misreading of an offside situation?

      Substitue also:
      What NZ fan will ever forget NZ being robbed of a famous victory in the 3rd Lions test by Romain Poite’s unfortunate misreading of an offside situation?

      what is it about these offside situations!

    • November 29th 2017 @ 10:26am
      taylorman said | November 29th 2017 @ 10:26am | ! Report

      Personally I think everyones getting a wee bit carried away with Scotlands 6N chances. 6N is a different beast to playing the SH sides and these matches have a lot of history and usually end up massive battles of attrition at the top end.

      They may have thumped Oz but they were thumped even bigger by England in the 6N only 8 months ago, 60 plus points put on them. To win the 6N they must beat England at Murrayfield because they wont win both Wales and Ireland away.

      England get both Ireland and Wales at Twickenham and thats a tall ask for anyone. So the odds are heavily with England as it was two years ago with the same home matches, the Murrayfield match the clincher.

      Scotland still to finish third behind Ireland and England, were that will depend on the Ire-Eng match at Twickers.

      So England easy again I’m afraid.

      • November 29th 2017 @ 3:49pm
        Neil Back said | November 29th 2017 @ 3:49pm | ! Report

        Fair comment. But the 6N always has room for a few upsets. If the Wrelsh can get all their Lions back on the pitch too, next year’s is shaping up for a cracker.

      • November 29th 2017 @ 4:22pm
        pheebr said | November 29th 2017 @ 4:22pm | ! Report

        Taylorman, that’s a really good point. For all that Scotland are playing some smashing rugby at the moment, I think they are vulnerable to the sort of relentless pressure that England and Ireland will impose on them. When the Wallabies were able to string a few phases together at the weekend they either came close or scored. Ditto the All Blacks the week before. The Scottish forwards are quick and mobile but England’s big tanks will roll over them and England now have the halves and outside backs to capitalise on that type of pressure. I agree England are definite favourites, closely followed by Ireland with Scotland producing exciting, attacking rugby but ultimately falling short.

      • November 30th 2017 @ 3:32am
        Not rocket science said | November 30th 2017 @ 3:32am | ! Report

        What people forget is that this Scotland side has been slow building since before the 2015 World Cup with the same spine of players playing at the same clubs together (a la Leinster at their best), but which is now matched by a huge and competitive front 5 with replacements. In the last year we beat: Ireland, Wales, Italy, Australia twice (away v 15 men) (home v 14 men). We should have beaten the All Blacks (yes, Finn made a great intercept, but the ABs were shut out until the second half and only got their first try when Scotland went down to 14 men due to an injury to defensive leader Dunbar with – surprise – am overlap with the physio still on the pitch tending to the missing man; then there was the KR slap / Bhatti disallowed try, the only reason it doesnt get spoken about is because we pegged them back anyway and at the death only Barrett (and perhaps few others in world rugby) could have made that tackle on Hogg to save the game). So, then, let’s turn to the losses cited that this team is flaky: England (away), here are the circumstances that never get mentioned: injury crisis following France away, down to 14 men in first 5 minutes, then Hogg is our first player injured during the game followed by 4 more that left us playing with 2 scrum halfs (one on the wing), away at Twickenham, and with the game out of sight – it was almost the perfect storm and no danger of it occurring again any time soon given the depth that now exists; Fiji (away), well, this was at least the 3rd string side on an island pitch, including no Russell and Hogg, nothing to read into it at all. What I’m saying is this Scotland side have been coming for a while, were upt to fifth in the world earlier in the year, and are still improving. Here is some of the pedigree in what is the NH’s most dangerous backline: Racing’s new marquee fly-half (finn russell), two time awarded best player in six nations (last two years) (stuart hogg), only British player in professional era to put in a man of the match (try-scoring) display in currie cup final (huw jones), two of Saracens best players (including player of the season) (Taylor and Maitland), Lions NZ tour leading try-scorer (Seymour), Bennett (world young player of the year) and that ignores the likes of McG (until recently leading try-scorer in Aviva Prem this season), Dunbar (arguably the best defensive centre in NH), Price (Glasgow player of the season). And behind that there is back up. Then, as the article cites, think of the coaches who have been / are involved in their day to day development: Cotter, Townsend, Taylor, MacFarland, Rennie, Cockerill. Then there’s the youth of the spine of the team: Fagerson (tighthead) 21, McInnaly (hooker) 27, Watson (open-side) 25, Gray (lock) 23, Du Preez (8) 26, Price (scrum half) 24, Russell (stand off) 25, Huw Jones (centre 23). I predicted a cricket score against Australia because people are still underestimating how little these players lose when they play together. By reminder, Glasgow, even with players on international duty, have won every game this season in the Pro 14 missing out on only 2 bonus points (however you cut that it’s impressive). I think even with these two recent performances – flash in the pan apparently – England still don’t quite understand the level of players they are going to be facing at a pumped up Murrayfield. Roll on 2018, and 2019! And beyond given the u20s just had their best ever WC beating Wales, Italy, Ireland, Australia and losing only to NZ and the already obvious emergence of massive prospects (stand off – Adam Hastings who is son of Gavin; George Horne – scrum half).

    • November 29th 2017 @ 11:55am
      Old Bugger said | November 29th 2017 @ 11:55am | ! Report

      Consistency is the catch cry Jack and atm, England has been the only side to show that form, over these past couple of 6N seasons. Agreed that Ireland are making in-roads but again, after collecting wins against SH sides last EOYT games, they then failed to capitalise on those successes, in the following 6N comp.

      So, whilst close games and wins against SH sides are worthy achievements in November, the acid tests will be how the side performs in the 6N to demonstrate any consistency, at all.

      Oh and btw, whilst having home games should provide an advantage, the opportunity to win away from home, will be the greater challenge to prove that consistency reigns.

      • Roar Rookie

        November 29th 2017 @ 1:49pm
        Jack Colwill said | November 29th 2017 @ 1:49pm | ! Report

        Totally agree. Being genuinely competitive and showing their best in the 6 Nations has always been their Achilles heel, so I look forward eagerly to that.
        If they find consistency, they can worry anyone, but it’s so hard to find. Only time will tell, but the signs and the pieces are all there.