State of the Nation: Scotland’s inconsistencies resurface but Finn Russell’s return proves fly-half jersey is his to lose

Jared Wright
Finn Russell for Scotland

Now that the 2022 international season has been wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the nations. Next up, Scotland.

It was another rollercoaster year for Gregor Townsend’s men, who ended 2022 with five wins from 12 Tests, securing the Calcutta Cup for another year and coming close to a shock win over New Zealand.

Scotland started their year with an encouraging win over England at Murrayfield, prompting hope that 2022 would be different for the thistle. But those hopes were quickly extinguished as they fell to a narrow 20-17 loss to Wales in Cardiff with just one other victory in the competition, an away win over Italy.

Still, the in-between will cause some concern heading into 2023, where a Rugby World Cup pool with South Africa, Ireland, Tonga and Romania awaits.

A wasted opportunity at history

A Darcy Graham hat-trick in a thrilling 52-29 victory over Argentina quickly put the disappointment of falling short to the All Blacks the week before to bed.

The return of Finn Russell saw Scotland produce some of their best rugby this year, with the talismanic playmaker steering the side to a 23-14 lead with just under half an hour to play. The implosion that followed saw New Zealand score two late tries and denied Scotland their maiden win over the Kiwis.

In fact, the Autumn Nations Series was a microcosm of Scotland’s year, starting with a few good performances not materialising into victories, with the pivots rotating and injuries ripping through the team.

Blair Kinghorn started the opening game of the autumn and failed to slot the match-winning penalty as Australia held out for the win. Fiji threatened to cause an upset a week later, but the Scots managed to flex their tier one muscle enough to see them home.

The inconsistent performances continued as they produced a powerful 50 minutes before falling apart in the final 30 against New Zealand and finished on a high against Argentina.

Finn’s jersey to lose

It was another interesting year for the Townsend-Russell relationship. The Racing 92 star was dropped for the final Six Nations match against Ireland after breaking team rules, was ‘rested’ for the tour to South America, and omitted from the initial Autumn Nations Series squad. 

During that period, Townsend continued his tinkering with Kinghorn at fly-half, with Adam Hastings getting sporadic opportunities as the pair had mixed success.

However, it is clear that Scotland operates far better with Russell than without him. The wins over England in their opening Six Nations match and their victory over Argentina – the side that Townsend’s charges lost twice to in July, scoring eight tries – are proof of that.

However, the year ended with Townsend hailing his maverick playmaker’s performances and stating that ‘he’s now the man in possession’ of the starting fly-half jersey. Russell waved his wand in their final Test, assisting four of the eight tries in a show of class. 

If Russell can keep his discipline clean and in Townsend’s good books, Scotland will be a real threat in their Rugby World Cup pool.

The All Blacks game was not the only time that Scotland wasted an opportunity to make history. In July, they levelled the series against Argentina but failed to shut the Pumas out in the final moments of the series as Emiliano Boffelli scored the series-clinching points.

New leadership

Stuart Hogg ended the Six Nations without the captain’s armband and was rested for the tour to South America, opening the door for new leaders to emerge.

Grant Gilchrist took his opportunity to lead his country in the first two matches, Hamish Watson skippering the third.

Jamie Ritchie led the side during the Autumn Nation Series matches and did so with distinction barring his yellow card in the game against Argentina.

The off-field antics of Russell and other players have hindered Scotland’s development since the last Rugby World Cup, and Townsend will hope the fresh voices in the changing room could make all the difference and set new standards.

Verdict

It was a year of learning for Scotland; the same applies to many teams, but Ireland, South Africa and England were able to pick up victories along the way, and Townsend’s men weren’t.

Naturally, Scotland fans will be frustrated by the inconsistent results and rightly so, but some notable improvements provide hope for 2023. Graham strung several standout performances together throughout the year. With him, Hogg, and Duhan van der Merwe in the back three, Scotland have a lethal attack capable of turning any Test on its head.

Kinghorn has shown that he has the potential to be a fine frontline fly-half at Test level, with a few tweaks to his game needed. His ability to also play in the back three adds depth to the squad and matchday 23.

The Tests against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand also showed that Scotland can mix it up with the Southern Hemisphere giants and cause an upset on their day.

Townsend’s side didn’t reach their potential or exceed expectations this year, but if there were a perfect year to do so, it would be in 2023. 

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