State of the Nation: Scotland exceed expectations but further development is needed to make a mark at the World Cup

Dylan Coetzee
Scotland captain Jamie Ritchie hoists the Doddie Weir trophy to the sky

Now that the 2023 Six Nations is wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. next up, Scotland.

This year’s campaign proved to be a great step forward for Gregor Townsend’s Scotland, who proved they are a side with quality just about across the park and one that can challenge some of the biggest names in rugby.

A third consecutive Calcutta Cup began the tournament on a positive note as the Scots ensured the start of England’s Steve Borthwick’s era was a disappointment by claiming a 29-23 win.

However, the tricky part came in round two, where the Scots had previously fallen away far too often and lost momentum for the rest of the tournament. This year was different, though, as Townsend’s men ran out 35-7 winners over a stalling Welsh side who were in disarray at the time.

The sense of belief grew so strong in the build-up to the Test against France, and although the Scots lost the game 32-21 with both sides down to 14, the side showed tremendous character and certainly had a shot at the game.

Their fight and character was on display again when they faced Ireland and, for 50-odd minutes, the Scots could keep up with the world’s best before the eventual Grand Slam winners raced away to a 22-7 win.

Scotland finished their campaign with a 26-14 win over Italy that was tighter than they would have wanted but a bonus-point victory nonetheless.

X-factor backline

The repair of the relationship between Townsend and star fly-half Finn Russell prior to the Six Nations proved crucial as the playmaker was free to show off his skill-set.

Scotland’s attacking output was very impressive this year, with the side scoring 17 tries, only four less than the top scorers, France and three less than champions Ireland. The trust in Russell to express himself and play with freedom is central to this. The fly-half finished with four try assists to show.

There is no denying that the team looks better going forward with him in the side. However, the final round saw the pivot ruled out, with Blair Kinghorn starting at 10. To the Edinburgh man’s credit, he did come away with a hat-trick of tries, but there was a notable difference in how the side was managed around the park. Kinghorn is quality but is simply not a more effective fly-half than Russell.

Russell’s potency this campaign could also be owed in part to the high-paced tempo of Ben White who has emerged as the out-and-out first choice at scrum-half.

Another key facet of the attacking output was the popular centre pairing, ‘Huwipulotu’, consisting of Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones, who started all championship long. The pair have impressive synergy and understanding of each other probably owing to the fact they are club mates.

Tuipulotu has grown tremendously and has a sharp rugby mind, whilst Jones has impressive running ability, particularly in the wide channels. Jones finished just short of the top try-scorer in the competition – Damian Penaud – with four, three of which his centre partner assisted.

Duhan van der Merwe almost sees it as a game to break his own defenders’ beaten record statistic during each campaign, as he did with 35 in 2023, headlined by a wonder try against England and an acrobatic masterpiece against Italy. The wing is a constant threat, and if he isn’t scoring he is attracting a lot of defensive attention.

On the other side, Kyle Steyn went a long way in cementing his spot in the side with a calculated, mature campaign. He will only grow as a Test player. Stuart Hogg was fairly disappointing, but if he finds his feet in time, this backline should be firing come the World Cup.

Warrior forward pack

A hallmark of Townsend’s Scots in the 2023 Six Nations was bravery, particularly in the pack and on defence. The forwards put their bodies on the line for the whole championship as Scotland topped the tackle charts with 831 tackles and the least missed tackles with 75 – two stats which will put a grin on defensive coach Steve Tandy’s face.

The opener against England typified this, as every single forward made more than 10 tackles in what was nothing short of a monstrous effort. Matt Fagerson led the way with a whopping 26 tackles on the night and finished the tournament as the top tackler with 83 tackles.

Jamie Ritchie’s leadership grew throughout the tournament, and he looks to be a solid long-term option in the leadership role as he guided his troops ever so well.

The second-row stocks received some disruptions with a Grant Gilchrist suspension and a couple of injuries, but the side dealt with it decently for the most part.

Meanwhile, at the coalface, Pierre Schoeman is on a one-way track to become a truly world-class Test-level loosehead prop through his sound scrummaging, and relentless carrying ability, with a total of 60 carries in the campaign only two short of the leader Freddie Steward.

Hooker George Turner had a sublime campaign of his own, while Zander Fagerson and WP Nel impressed on the tighthead side.

Verdict and looking ahead

There is no doubt that this campaign was very positive for Scotland and that Townsend’s men have taken some impressive steps forward.

Scotland played well in every game but not always for the full 80 – an aspect which will be lingering in Townsend’s mind. Against Ireland, for example, the relentless pressure eventually forced the Scots to give way as they barged through.

This is the major concern for Scotland, who have one of the most difficult groups in the World Cup ahead of them, with world number one Ireland and defending champions the Springboks major hurdles to their progression.

There is no doubt that Scotland can bother both those teams, but if they cannot do that for 80 minutes or very close to it, then Ireland’s organisation and the Springboks’ brutality will prove too much.

The side has four fixtures to play before a date with the Springboks in France, starting with a Test against Italy on July 29, France on August 5 (both at Murrayfield), another against France away from home and finally, a battle with Georgia at Murrayfield on August 26.

It is a campaign that deservedly brought smiles to Scotland and their fans, but the good work needs to continue if the progress is to be telling at rugby’s showpiece event later this year.

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