With the June internationals now done and dusted, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Scotland.
Scotland’s two-Test jaunt through Japan is not likely to have furnished head coach Vern Cotter with a great deal of gen he didn’t already have jotted down several times over.
Culturally, environmentally, touring here was a useful reconnaissance mission ahead of the World Cup in 2019, and Scotland have now exposed themselves to the climate, the customs and the hosts’ furious rugby.
On the field, Cotter’s side pulled up no trees. In fact, they’d have laboured to uproot a bunch of daisies. They were sloppy, erratic and downright awful in patches, with a hefty reliance on the bruisers up-front and the boot of captain, Greig Laidlaw. Not good enough.
The obvious caveats to the criticism are thus: at the end of a brutal season, facing two tight encounters, Scotland still bludgeoned their way to a 2-0 series scoreline, and even under-strength, Japan are a truly devilish side to subdue.
But there was a lot more to be gained from this voyage – and there’s a niggling sense that opportunity was, to a large extent, squandered. The indications were apparent when Cotter plumped for a “tight” squad, adding only a sprinkling of new faces.
Tellingly, the New Zealander seldom deviates from his trusted combatants – the little Borders maestro Laidlaw, and the terrific front-row axis of Al Dickinson, Ross Ford and WP Nel in particular are so deeply entrenched in the Scottish XV that Godzilla would have a job excavating them.
That’s because international rugby is a ruthless business, and Cotter fears derailing the tartan train that has been steadily gathering pace since the chastening Six Nations whitewash of 2015.
Still, this tour presented the Kiwi with a fleeing but precious opportunity – away from World Cups or Six Nations or November Tests against the southern hemisphere titans – to shuffle his pack, broaden his range of Test-ready recruits for the season ahead.
It was an opening for the likes of Stuart McInally, the back-row-turned-hooker – he’s dynamic, he’s a leader and he’s got a very agile rugby brain. He didn’t grasp his opportunity – starting both Tests – as firmly as he might have. McInally was not alone in allowing the greasy ball to squirm from his paws, but his errant throwing remains a gnawing concern.
Beside him, Rory Sutherland at loosehead brought no shortage of ballast. The back-row Ryan Wilson has had, shall we say, a turbulent year or two, but his dutiful carrying and explosive defence was phenomenal in the first Test in Toyota City.
Henry Pyrgos earned a rare start ahead of Laidlaw in the second, but struggled to seize the game and exert the kind of domineering influence you’d like to see a scrum-half or a captain exhibit. He was hauled off with the game hanging in the balance.
Laidlaw is pilloried for his ponderous delivery, but Scotland suffered, lacked purpose and cohesion without his presence.
Further out, the Stormers rookie Huw Jones barely had a sniff, and the Edinburgh rapier Damien Hoyland saw little ball in his sole appearance. It would have been intriguing, and perhaps invaluable, to have seen more of both in the Test arena.
The evolution of this Scotland squad is advancing at the rate of a semi-tranquilised sloth. When the starters are fit, and playing well, all is rosy. But there’s still a sense that an injury here, a loss of form there, could plunge the whole enterprise into chaos.
With the exception of Zander Fagerson, the emerging crop – the Blair Kinghorns, the Scott Cummingses and Jamie Ritchies – have excelled in the PRO12, but have still to be blooded at international level. Of the new boys and fringe players on tour, we didn’t see enough.
It was particularly exposing of Scotland’s fragility that, with his team on shaky ground at half-time in the second Test, Cotter was compelled to muster the heavy artillery and replace his entire front-row, then sacrifice Pyrgos on the hour for the governance and grit of Laidlaw, who ground them over the line.
Cotter then has chalked up another two wins, turgid or not, but his pool of playing options is no deeper than it was a month ago.
Victories here are not to be sniffed at – especially when post-millennium Scotland have made such a prolific, maddening habit of botching matches they should win – but victories alone are inadequate if there are grander ambitions brewing for the Six Nations and beyond.
Read the rest of our State of the Nation pieces following the June Tests right here.