Gregor Townsend’s team improved as they went on due in no small part to the inclusion of Finn Russell in the final two matches. The debate around the stand-off’s initial exclusion threatened to overshadow the entire campaign`which ended with Russell having a hand in all eight tries in the 52-29 win over Argentina and waltzing off with the player of the match honours. Before that, Scotland kicked off with a one-point loss to Australia, huffed and puffed to a victory over Fiji and went down in a blaze of glory to the All Blacks. Here are eight takeaways from Scotland’s autumn series:
Darcy Graham is one of Europe’s best
Against Argentina, Darcy Graham produced one of the great performances by a Scotland winger. His first Test hat-trick means he now averages a try every two games for his country. At 25, he is at his prime and will carry a huge threat for Scotland in next year’s Six Nations and Rugby World Cup. Officials stats showed he topped the charts both for defenders beaten (eight) and metres carried (187) against the Pumas, up from six and 96 the previous week against New Zealand when he scored one brilliant try and was unfortunate to have another disallowed. Townsend spoke after the match about Graham’s durability and “getting his body right” after a couple of injury-disrupted seasons. “Now he’s in good physical shape so he can take those hits he inevitably gets the way he plays, and he can go for 80 minutes,” said the coach.
Comeback kid #1
The Richie Gray revival was one of the more unexpected positives to come out of Scotland’s campaign. At 33, and five years after he last started for the national side, Gray was picked against Fiji then retained his place for New Zealand, impressing in both with his lineout dominance and tackling. Townsend reported that the lock was clocking up his fastest Scotland stats ever in training and, more importantly, he now feels in the right place mentally to play Test rugby again. Gray was unfortunate to pick up a suspension for foul play against the All Blacks but looks in good fettle to kick on towards the Six Nations and potentially the third World Cup of his career, having missed the tournament in 2019.
Finn Russell debate settled
Well, in the end it wasn’t much of a debate. Russell confirmed what most observers suspected - that he is head and shoulders above his competitors as Scotland’s best stand-off. Left out of Townsend’s original squad, Russell came roaring back for the All Blacks game and almost helped Scotland pull off something special. He then produced a dazzling performance against Argentina. Blair Kinghorn started against Australia and Adam Hastings got the nod for Fiji, and both men did well, each scoring fine tries. Townsend will take heart from having strengthened his options at 10 but Russell is out in front.
Townsend in debit for the first time
The thumping win over Argentina added a little gloss to what has been, at times, a difficult 12 months for Townsend and team. In terms of results, the coach posted an annual deficit for the first time in his reign. Five victories and seven defeats are the bald statistics for the national side in 2022, compared to six wins and three losses last year, five and four in 2020, six and six (and one draw) in 2019, seven and five in 2018 and four and two in 2017 under Townsend.
Losing leads is still a problem
Scotland squandered a 15-point second-half lead to lose the final Test against Argentina in the summer and they were at it again in the autumn, surrendering nine-point advantages against Australia and New Zealand. Scotland fell out of both games after having players sin-binned and it’s fair to say the importance of maintaining discipline will be drilled into the squad between now and the World Cup.
Comeback kid #2
Like Russell, Fraser Brown was not in Townsend’s original autumn squad but was called up due to injuries to others. And, again like Russell, he went straight into the starting XV for the New Zealand game and retained his place for Argentina. The hooker seized his chance. His lineout work was solid and he made his presence felt in the loose, helping create a try for Sione Tuipulotu against the Pumas with one memorable foray. Brown turned 33 this year but he and Richie Gray are back in the mix for Scotland.
Jamie Ritchie leads from the front
New Scotland captain Jamie Ritchie had a tough act to follow in Stuart Hogg but the flanker rose to the occasion, handling himself admirably on and off the pitch. He was yellow-carded against Argentina for his part in a mass brawl but his willingness to go in on behalf of Darcy Graham suggests an all-for-one mentality in the group. Hogg’s autumn form improved as the campaign wore on and the hope is that the full-back will benefit from being freed of the captaincy burden.
Sione Tuipulotu takes centre stage
Inside centre has been a tricky position for Scotland. Sam Johnson has held the jersey in recent seasons but Townsend has made no secret of his admiration for Cameron Redpath. Injuries prevented him from building on his impressive Twickenham debut in 2021 so it was surprising that when a fully fit Redpath returned for the Fiji game he was discarded a week later. With Johnson nursing a facial injury, Tuipulotu has emerged as the first choice 12, starting the three other autumn Tests. He ended up with two tries against Argentina and looks like he will be a hard man to dislodge for the Six Nations, even if Redpath did return for the Pumas game to score a try off the bench.