Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Sunday’s game against Japan was a real eye opener in many ways and if Scotland continue to aspire to playing high tempo rugby under Gregor Townsend then they’ll have to bring back the blue-print from the far east; for the Japanese team gave Scotland a masterclass in accuracy, teamwork and game pace.
Japan were salacious and some of the quality of their play was as good as you get but Scotland also had their moments. I understand that Townsend is under fire but I do believe he will remain at Scotland’s helm for next year’s 6 Nations. Here are 5 areas that I would like to see happen before then.
1. Out with the old and in with the young
Greig Laidlaw has been a great servant but it is now time for him to bow out of international rugby and let the likes of George Horne and Ali Price take on the mantle. Both nines are fine line breakers and add pace and speed to Scotland’s attack but what we saw from Japan’s Yutaka Nagare was how quick he got his line runners into the game which was in marked contrast to Laidlaw.
I also felt some of the senior players did not step up to the mark during this world cup campaign. Tommy Seymour was out of sorts as was Stuart McNally who never got out of second gear. And then we have Stuart Hogg who was largely anonymous. Somehow Scotland are going to have work out how to get him into the game. Maybe he should start on the wing and allow Blair Kinghorn a chance at full-back but he has much to give and his move to Exeter may rekindle the fire?
The one player who was selected on form was Jamie Ritchie. What a performance he had and whilst Magnus Bradbury stepped into the squad following Hamish Watson’s injury, Brabury has a real chance to cement himself into the blindside flank position for the next few seasons. Talking of form, I was disappointed that Rory Hutchison did not make the final selection as Scotland failed to find the right combination in mid-field. This was largely down to Duncan Taylor’s lack of match fitness and whilst the final pairing of Johnston and Harris did not spark, it’s time to give Hutchison a start in the 6 Nations.
There is also a group of youngsters that are going to grow in stature over the next 4 years so take you chance messrs, Cummings (22), Fagerson (23), Hastings (23), Kinghorn (22) and Graham (22) and drive the standards higher!
Scotland kicked from hand throughout this tournament and in their pre-rugby world cup warm up internationals far more than they had last season. In the match against Samoa they got the balance and execution right. Against Japan, Finn Russell’s accuracy evaded him. The cross kick was overused and too often the ball was pumped aimlessly downfield. This in turn allowed Japan to counter-attack but kicking is about accuracy. Scotland need to vary their kicking game and learn to use it as part of their attacking game plan.
3. Contact and ball retention
Keeping the ball is crucial in contact. Only by building phases of possession can you put your opposition under pressure and when Scotland managed to get this facet of the game right on Sunday, Japan started to crack. Had there been greater accuracy in the contact and ball retention Scotland may well have scored more tries but the way the Japanese hit the contact area was impressive. Their speed and angle of run was challenging for Scotland who had to make just short of 200 tackles but Townsend will need to hammer into his team that you have to take contact on your own terms with pace and power. That is how you generate front foot rugby and it was evident that Japan’s excellence in this area gave them far more attacking ball than the Scots.
Inevitably you will always have instances where your line will be breached and I thought that 2 of Japan’s tries could have been stopped. The first by Mutsushima came from a lovely run and offload from Fukuoka. Darcy Graham allowed the extra man to be created by biting in on the full back Tupou but when Chris Harris had the ball stripped in mid-field at the start of the second half that was a soft score.
In the matches against Samoa and Russia it was pleasing to see Scotland not concede a point but mistakes in the match against Ireland gave the Irish field position to score 3 tries. Scotland’s defence is not that poor but it still needs to be worked on and this something that can be turned into a strength.
5. Eliminate errors and build self-belief
I do think Scotland have self-belief but what I find damaging is that too many unforced errors leave Scotland with too much to do and they are forced to play catch up rugby. That was certainly the case against Japan on Sunday and against England in the 6 Nations.
Whilst the comebacks have contributed to excitement, the team failed to win and there are numerous other examples most notably against Wales 2 seasons ago and against France in Nice back in August where the defeats have been self-inflicted.
Winning is a habit and you just need to look at Wales, England and Ireland who have recorded many more wins than Scotland have in recent seasons. By building on the foundations above the next group of players have a chance to build self-belief. It comes from hard work and dedication but most importantly from the next win.