Six Nations Preview: Scotland

Date published: January 28 2014

Scott Johnson's Scotland have it all to do if they are to repeat the third-placed finish of last year's Six Nations.

Scott Johnson's Scotland have it all to do if they are to repeat the third-placed finish of last year's Six Nations.

Last Year: Scotland enjoyed their best finish for seven years, with wins over Ireland and Italy at Murrayfield securing them third place on the leaderboard. Undoubtedly a morale-booster, but no cause for hype; it was heavily influenced by the French and the Irish enduring disastrous respective campaigns.

In attack, there were encouraging signs for new boss Scott Johnson after years of stagnant impotency in the back-line. Talents like Matt Scott and Stuart Hogg came to the fore; while the introduction of arch-finisher Tim Visser and clever Kiwi Sean Maitland out wide gave the Scots a novel dangerous feel.

But Scotland still hadn't cracked the fly-half conundrum. Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir vied for the number ten jersey; neither did much to convince Johnson he was the outstanding candidate. The lack of a play-making pivot was glaring, Italy game excepted.

Frustrating old problems continued to surface; chiefly, errors and execution with the home loss to Wales a painful low point amid a disjointed, set-piece dominated game of rugby. Indeed, had Ireland capitalised on any one of their innumerable scoring opportunities in Edinburgh, the hosts would have come away empty-handed.

They didn't, though, and Johnson's debut tournament north of the border was a statistical success; two wins from five is one more than the Scots usually manage, especially when travelling to Twickenham and Paris, where they have not won since 1983 and 1999 respectively.

It wasn't a huge statement, but the Australian could take plenty from a third-placed finish and at long last a set of outside backs to whom running rugby and scoring tries comes naturally.

This Year: In terms of results, things aren't so positive; largely thanks to uninspiring November defeats to South Africa and the Wallabies. But that was always likely to be so given Johnson's use of the month's Tests as a tool to expand his squad, and offer those on the fringes a taste of the action.

His rotation policy was a tad baffling, however, especially when words like “form” and “game-time” were so liberally tossed around. Those in-form, namely Chris Fusaro, Pat MacArthur and Jon Welsh, got little or no minutes on the field.

That has proved a recurring theme this year. The Six Nations focus is on building and consolidating a settled first XV for next year's World Cup. It looks like Johnson, for better or worse, has largely decided on which players that will comprise.

Skipper Kelly Brown will wear seven; a bone of contention for many fans. Brown is a fine player, and does more than his fair share of work at the breakdown, but he will never match the fetching capabilities of a genuine openside. It is amazing that Johnson has seen fit to overlook John Barclay and Roddy Grant for not just his Test squad, but the A team group as well.

In addition, the front-row looks worryingly short on quality and depth. Ross Ford is desperately struggling for form. Euan Murray is out injured, and Welsh has not been selected. If Ryan Grant picks up a knock, Scotland are left with a set of competent props but none that can be considered fear-inducing for their opponents. Cian Healy must be licking his lips.

While out wide, Visser is injured long-term and Scott has just recovered from a knock, that fly-half spot is still a niggle Johnson can't put right. Jackson and Weir are short on form, and Tom Heathcote has played but a handful of games for Bath. Edinburgh's Greig Tonks has impressed following his switch from full-back, and is now a serious contender, but it's unclear whether he has the credentials for a Test rugby pivot.

Key Player: Naturally, as Scotland's brightest and most incisive attacking threat, Hogg is crucial to Johnson's plans. His broken field running is exceptional, and there are encouraging signs he is finding form again with Glasgow Warriors after a spell out injured.

Ones to Watch: Scott and Hogg will be tasked with igniting the Scottish offence, but young Warriors midfielder Alex Dunbar is worth keeping an eye on. He could play in either centre position, depending on Scott's fitness, and his direct running, distribution and keen eye for a gap are exactly what is needed.

Saracens'Duncan Taylor didn't have the best November, but he's another whose recent form and ability to play 12 and 13 could see him started by Johnson. Dougie Fife at Edinburgh is an exciting prospect too; a speedy finisher doing well to fill Visser's sizeable boots in the PRO12.

Prospects: Traditionally, Scotland have been at their best when facing England and France on home turf. But with the front-row in its present state, Johnson's charges will struggle to match either in the tight.

Trips to Dublin and Cardiff are tricky but not insurmountable; again, though, it would take quite a performance to win either. The Scots must seriously up their game to shed the perennial tag of wooden spoon contenders for the second year running.

And though Johnson is a strong character, fond of a press conference quip or three; it remains to be seen whether he can walk the walk as an international head coach.


Feb 2nd v Ireland
Feb 8th v England
Feb 22nd v Italy
March 8th v France
March 15th v Wales

By Jamie Lyall