Perennial quarter-finalists Scotland find themselves in a bit of a pickle coming into the Rugby World Cup, as they look to avenge their painful exit from the 2015 edition with a strong showing on rugby’s biggest stage.
With just a single win from their dire fifth-placed Six Nations campaign to kick off the year, the Scots have bounced back leading into the World Cup, winning three of their four warm-up Tests to bring a hint of form into the tournament.
Scotland Rugby World Cup squad
John Barclay, Simon Berghan, Fraser Brown, Scott Cummings, Allan Dell, Zander Fagerson, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Stuart McInally (c), Willem Nel, Gordon Reid, Jamie Ritchie, Blade Thomson, Ben Toolis, George Turner, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson
Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Adam Hastings, Stuart Hogg, George Horne, Pete Horne, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland, Ali Price, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Duncan Taylor
Coach Gregor Townsend has named a fairly safe 31-man squad, although he’s still managed to throw in a few eyecatching footnotes.
Hooker Stuart McInally has retained the captaincy, beating out former skippers Greg Laidlaw and John Barclay for the role despite playing 44 and 45 fewer Tests respectively.
Huw Jones is the most notable omission from the line-up with the young centre’s tumultuous past 12 months on the pitch catching up to him. After shooting out of the gates on the international stage with ten tries in his first 14 Tests, Townsend has run out of patience with the Edinburgh native, who has failed to cross the white line in his last nine appearances for his country, as well as struggling with form and injuries for Glasgow.
There are no uncapped players in the line-up, with 13 of the side having played in a World Cup before.
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Scotland’s biggest strength leading into the World Cup is their finishing at the back end of games; their ability to either run home with the contest or get themselves back into one in the second stanza.
In 2019, they’ve scored twice as many tries in the second half as they have in the first, where they’ve bagged 18 meat pies from nine Tests (including one where they didn’t score at all), compared to just nine in their first halves.
Their ability to come home with a wet sail has turned them into one of the most dangerous sides outside the top six coming into the Cup.
Their never-say-die attitude has served them well this year despite a rollercoaster of results throughout the calendar. Who could forget their five-try blitz of England in just 29 minutes of the second half during the Six Nations, turning around a 31-point deficit and only being denied victory by a heartbreaking George Ford try after fulltime to salvage a draw?
Something similar happened against France in a warm-up Test, when they turned around a negative halftime scoreline, keeping Les Bleus scoreless in the second half while adding to their own total to take a dramatic three-point win.
Scotland’s overall results for the year might not make for particularly happy reading, but they’ve been thriving late in the contest against tiring defenders with the use of intelligent substitutions from Townsend. It’s an edge that opposing teams will find hard to contain.
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Their starts. The antagonist to the above point.
This year has seen the Scots giving up too much too early, leaving them chasing the game from the outset. It’s something they simply can’t afford to do in a pool that will be closer than many are expecting, not to mention if they make it through to the quarters where they will likely face either South Africa or New Zealand.
Not counting their last two Tests against second-tier side Georgia, Scotland conceded a try within the first two minutes in each of their previous three games, which extends to a try inside 13 minutes as far back as their last six Tests, all against fellow Six Nations opposition.
Just to top it off, in all six of those Tests, the opposition scored a second try before Scotland were able to cross the line. Long story short: they’re falling behind early every time they take the field through a mix of cold errors and shaky defence.
Townsend should be putting a big focus leading into the tournament on a more aggressive and lively opening quarter to their fixtures. They’ve been caught napping time and time again and opposition sides will pick that apart in Japan.
Scotland have proven themselves strong finishers once they get the ball rolling, but you just can’t expect to come back from two tries down every time.
Key Player: Stuart Hogg
This is cheating a little, but it’s worth highlighting a key position more than a particular player. The fullbacks will be the lynchpin for the Scottish offence: Stuart Hogg and understudy Darcy Graham.
Hogg has arguably been Scotland’s greatest asset for well over half a decade now, taking home the Six Nations Player of the Tournament in 2016 and 2017 as he made his mark as one of world rugby’s best players.
He’s Scotland’s fourth greatest try-scorer and the second-highest try-scorer for any fullback in the world since his debut in 2012. The guy can find his way over the line.
On top of that, he’s the third most experienced player in Scotland’s 31-man squad with 69 caps, making him a vital cog not only through the set-piece in attack, field position and defence at the back and a counter-attacking threat, but also as an important asset for the large chunk of younger and less travelled players in the side to learn from, feed off and rely on in key moments.
Having Hogg in the side is a huge boost for the Scots. Even better than that is having the young and hungry Darcy Graham nipping at his heels, adding a dangerous bit of depth to a position that’s already one of the side’s strongest.
The 22-year-old has had a breakout year, shaping up as one of the brightest young stars not only in Scottish rugby, but the Test arena for the next generation.
He’s the second-highest try-scorer in the world in 2019, nabbing five in just six Tests having only made his debut in the dark blue ten months ago. If he’s given a chance by Townsend, even to come off the bench to facilitate the late-game attacking flair mentioned earlier, then he can do some serious damage and really announce himself on the international stage.
(Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images)
Verdict: Don’t sleep on them (but you can probably sleep on them)
Scotland have been frustrating to follow this year and it’s difficult to see it being any different at the World Cup.
They’ll need to be wary of Japan in Pool A and Samoa can never be ruled out for an upset, but realistically they should slot in behind Ireland for second spot in the pool. Unfortauntely for them, with New Zealand expected to top Pool B, that would put them on a collision course with the All Blacks and yet another quarter-final exit.
Their best chance would be to knock off the recently dubbed world no.1 side in Ireland to top their pool which would then serve them up to the Springboks for the finals. Again, not a great quarter-final match-up, given the South Africans are having a stellar year.
With the threat of late charges, and plenty of offensive weapons across the back three, they might have the potential to cause a boilover against the Boks or All Blacks but just don’t look like matching the might of the three aforementioned powerhouses in the rugby equation at the moment.