A bullish Zander Fagerson has sought to allay fears that Scotland’s creaking scrum is threatening to derail hopes of a successful Six Nations campaign. The visiting set-piece was given a torrid time in Paris on Sunday as France’s mighty pack turned the screw en route to a 22-16 victory in a game which Scotland had threatened to win but ultimately found themselves muscled out.
Glasgow tighthead prop Fagerson was winning just his sixth cap, with loosehead Allan Dell in his fifth Test and, after some early troubles against Ireland the previous week, it came as no surprise that the French targeted the scrum.
The Scots dug themselves out of a hole against the Irish and ultimately secured a heartwarming and long-awaited opening victory but, along with yesterday’s news that skipper Greig Laidlaw is out of the tournament, the evident travails at scrum time which proved so costly in France are an obvious worry.
Fagerson, 21, and Dell, 24, are in the midst of a baptism of fire at the top level in the game and are giving it their all but the absence of first-choice props Alasdair Dickinson, who it is hoped could return soon, and WP Nel, who is out long-term after neck surgery, is starting to bite.
But the young Glasgow tighthead is refusing to panic and is confident that the Scottish scrum can fight back when Wales come calling to BT Murrayfield in the third round of matches a week on Saturday.
“Yes, there is a lot we can do,” he said. “We have a good scrum, we just need to get the processes right. So I’m not worried about it at all. Against France, in the first scrum of the game we had them under pressure but … some of [what they did] was legal, some illegal, and they got the ref on their side and some things didn’t go our way.
“Wales do the same things as France and Ireland did and so we need to fight fire with fire. It will be a good challenge and I’m looking forward to it.
“The French were a big team but I didn’t think that power thing played a lot into it [the defeat]. It was more about processing stuff and getting height, getting your bind and the right shoulder in and consistency in set-up.”
After playing the full 80 minutes against Ireland, Fagerson was replaced by debutant Simon Berghan, who only has a couple of professional starts for Edinburgh, after 58 minutes in the Stade de France.
“It was a tough game but we have to regroup and look forward to Wales now,” said Fagerson.
“I really enjoyed both games. I learned a lot and it’s a learning curve so as long as you learn from your mistakes and get better that’s the main thing.
“I didn’t get my breath back till the next day [after the full 80 against Ireland], but, no, it didn’t affect me too much. We had a good training week and the body was great coming into the France game, so no, it was fine. I wasn’t fatigued.”
Asked if he thought Scotland tried to play a bit too loose rather than patiently go through the phases and seek field position, the prop replied: “I wouldn’t say so. I think we played in the right areas and put them under pressure but little off-loads or knock-ons they did well, disrupted our breakdown, but I’m a tighthead prop not a fly-half so I couldn’t tell you whether we played too much rugby or not.”
Fagerson may strongly reject the notion that Scotland’s scrum has become a weakness but he does accept that things didn’t go well in France and improvement is needed.
“Massively. If you can’t retain your own ball it will be pretty tough,” he conceded. “Against France we were under pressure a bit, but we kept all our own ball, got it all back.
“It is still a massive part of the game. I don’t think you can win a game in the scrum unless you have 20 scrums in the game. But it’s a good way of getting to the opposition and getting territory. It’s a big part of the game.”
Despite the gargantuan efforts of the past fortnight Fagerson insists he is feeling fresh and exuded the bouncebackability of a 21-year-old at Scotland’s Oriam training base yesterday, though he did break into a broad grin when asked if he expected to be spared from club duty this weekend.
“I don’t know. I’m not the boss. I hope so,” he said with a chuckle.
Fagerson is already casting his mind forward to Wales now and, after watching their narrow defeat to England in Cardiff, said: “Some areas of their game have been good. They were unlucky against England.
“They played a good game, probably one of their best for a while. They have some good, strong players. [Stand-off] Dan Biggar is a good player. Their scrum isn’t bad and they have a good forward pack.
“Alun Wyn Jones is a talisman for them. He’s a good player for club and country. They have a few threats but I think they have a few chinks in their armour that I think we can attack. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
As the championship enters its first ‘fallow’ weekend the intensity has dropped slightly as the players look to rest up some weary bones and shake off niggles picked up from two draining matches, with the last one particularly brutal.
Fagerson said it was important to find an escape from the Six Nations pressure cooker and, while he may have been glad to see the back of those mammoth French forwards, he revealed he could find solace in some Gallic company.
“Mentally, it is quite draining. We’re full-on. It’s full-on at a club as well, but international intensity is higher,” he explained. “You’ve got analysis, reviews and previews. There’s not a lot of switch-off time.
“When you do get time it is sometimes tough because you have such a short space of time. On days off, you’re still looking at clips at home.
“But I’ve got my dogs, two French bulldogs. Very masculine. They’re very trendy and very lazy.
“I watch a bit of TV, play some golf, go out on my bike. I live quite close to a park, so I just go for a walk with my girlfriend.”
For all his youthful zest and willingness to play as many minutes in as many games as possible, Fagerson did blanche at the prospect of a Six Nations played over five successive weekends, as England’s top clubs have been advocating.
“I think that’s completely implausible,” he said with a roll of the eyes. “I feel sorry for the guys who might have to play for their clubs this weekend. We get looked after pretty well so unless it’s a necessity I don’t think a lot of the boys will be playing.
“Having been in the junior World Cup, where you play five games over four weeks, it is pretty brutal, and that’s at under-20 level. Internationally it would be ridiculous. I don’t think that could ever happen.”