Allan Massie: Scotland’s breakthrough stars set to dazzle for years

Adam Hastings has the nerve to play 'who dares wins' rugby. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS/SRU
Adam Hastings has the nerve to play 'who dares wins' rugby. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS/SRU
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On a rough count I reckon there are more than 70 current, still active, players who have played international rugby for Scotland. Back in the 1980s there might have been less than half that number, and perhaps a few then might have won only a single cap, something very rare now.

The reason for the increase in number is obvious. There are now 23 players in a match-day squad and it is quite usual for all of them to get on to the pitch, if only for a few minutes at the tail-end of a game. There are also many more international matches, at least eight a season rather than five, and a summer tour almost every year. So, given that the autumn internationals and summer tours sometimes see experimental combinations fielded, and given that we have only two domestic pro clubs, it’s likely that almost every Scot contracted to Edinburgh or Glasgow will at some point in his career get a chance to play for Scotland – or think himself unlucky, even hard done-by, if he doesn’t. Most of us would probably have to think for some time and call for pencil and paper if asked to name everyone who has played for Scotland in the year just finishing. Rather than attempting that, it seems a better idea to name players who have made an international breakthrough this year. There are quite a few of them.

Finn Russell’s departure to Paris gave Adam Hastings the chance to take possession of the No 10 jersey at Glasgow, and how well he has taken it. In a style of running reminiscent of his Uncle Scott, he appears to have all his father Gavin’s boundless self-confidence. With this goes the ability to shrug off mistakes of the kind that might make another player want to hide his face. So it’s improbable that the experience of handing Edinburgh two interception tries – and indeed the match – at Murrayfield last Saturday will dull his appetite for adventure. In truth almost all midfield backs who are ready to take risks will sometimes find passes snapped up by the opposition. Even Russell’s “miracle pass” to Huw Jones which sparked off that wonderful try against England might have been snaffled by one of the English backs it floated over or past. Young Hastings, like Russell, has the nerve to play SAS stuff: Who Dares Wins.

Likewise his young partner George Horne. The pair of them really made their breakthrough against Argentina in the summer when they ran riot in a first half that for its audacity and brilliance revived memories of that astonishing afternoon in Paris in 1999 when Gregor Townsend & Co played the sort of rugby that those of us of a certain generation had more often seen from some of the great French back divisions. Hastings and Horne are unlikely to start in the coming Six Nations, and they still have a lot of learning to do. But they are going to give us an awful lot of pleasure for both Glasgow and Scotland.

Few of us knew much about Exeter’s Sam Skinner when Gregor named him in the squad for the autumn internationals, and those who did may have thought of him as one of these dual-qualified players more likely to opt for England than for Scotland. However he made the right decision and in his first match against Fiji showed just why he had been picked. Of course any lock or back-row forward who has been schooled in Rob Baxter’s Exeter pack – and held his place there – is going to be both hard and technically accomplished. Competition is stiff at lock, but Skinner’s ability to play 6 and – probably 8 – surely makes him a candidate for a regular place in the match-day squad.

Matt Fagerson has been known as “Zander’s young brother”. This autumn, playing regularly at 8 for Glasgow, he has carried and tackled so effectively, that when Zander returns from his long injury absence he may find himself identified as “Matt’s big brother”. Matt is ridiculously young to be an international No 8, but it would be no surprise if, come the World Cup, he had made that position his own in the Scotland side.

Jamie Ritchie has been admired by knowledgeable Edinburgh fans for two or three years now, but it has seemed that he might, like his club’s forwards coach Roddy Grant prove to be one of these unlucky players who did everything well but nothing so outstandingly well that he would force his way into the Scotland team. However, injuries to John Barclay and Magnus Bradbury gave him his chance this autumn, and he took it so convincingly that he is surely now to be reckoned with when Six Nations selection time comes round.

Finally, Edinburgh’s young Hawick winger, Darcy Graham, has so far had no more than a sniff at international rugby, but this boy is the real thing: fast, skilful, clever and brave; also, happily, offering a reminder –like New Zealand’s Damian Mackenzie – that the back three positions in international rugby aren’t the preserve of only the big and powerful. He is going to score an awful lot of tries for Edinburgh and Scotland and provide spectators with a deal of fun.