Fraser Brown: Scotland’s focus is on a championship challenge - but big call in back-row may hinge on lineout thoughts
Scotland vs England is always a box-office fixture north of the border. In times where there has been little hope of Scotland mounting a Six Nations title challenge, the Calcutta Cup has provided a focal point for fans and players hoping to upset the odds. Saturday’s win over England could not have been further from this scenario.
This is a Scotland team filled with top-class internationals, the meanest defence in world rugby and a blistering and devastating attack. This side’s focus is on a championship challenge.
They were deserved winners. Despite being starved of possession and field position for much of the match, there was a calmness in the Scottish ranks, if not the stands, and that’s testament to the work Steve Tandy has done on defence and the confidence he has instilled in every player when Scotland don’t have the ball.
Despite the jubilation at the final whistle, there was also frustration at the overall performance – a good indication of the culture in the squad. Scotland would have liked more field position and to have conceded fewer penalties. The lineout functioned superbly in terms of ball-winning but cleaner ball would have provided more opportunities to unleash the attacking weapons in the Scottish arsenal.
Despite this, Scotland were clinical.
Their first real chance came from the quick lineout which led to Ben White’s debut try. Since I started working with Gregor Townsend in 2012, he has always had moves like this in his playbook. The idea is to try to capitalise on a momentary loss of concentration in the opposition ranks, where hesitation and confusion at not being in the right positions to defend the set play can create mismatches. Saturday was a demonstration of great coaching to identify the opportunity and then brilliant execution from the players.
George Turner, the Scotland hooker, was almost off the pitch ready to take the throw before the ball had been kicked; the lineout was in and away before the English defensive line could set and the first breakdown was quick, allowing Stuart Hogg to get out to Maro Itoje and create the space for Darcy Graham. And how about the finish!
For Scotland the challenge is to now follow up the England win with another, in Cardiff on Saturday, against a Welsh side hurting from a chastening defeat by Ireland.
There is a slight sense of deja vu. Last year, Wales were not in a great place going into the championship. A poor autumn and a mountain of injuries had downplayed expectations but they ended up winning the title.
They’ll be hurting after the Ireland game, not just because of the loss but because it was a really poor performance. But they’re at home this weekend, with fans back and they’ve definitely got something to prove.
I think Scotland will be focusing on their attacking game. They’ll have seen how well Ireland attacked, the lines of running, particularly from the forwards in midfield, the little deception plays with Johnny Sexton tucked in behind.
Because they were so tight, the Welsh players defending in midfield kept picking the wrong options, shooting out of the line and targeting the wrong individuals. They created seams for Sexton and the forward runners to pick through, and Ireland could have been 30 points up after half an hour.
Scotland will look to see how they can generate quick ball and create multiple options. If those Welsh defenders jump out of line and make a wrong decision the Scots will look to play someone through the hole.
There will be at least one change to the Scotland team due to Jamie Ritchie’s injury. I was gutted for Jamie at the weekend. He was playing so well – he always does.
All the back row were excellent. I thought it was Matt Fagerson’s best game in a Scotland jersey by a country mile. Matt’s always been powerful and dynamic but he was dominating against England. And then you’ve got Hamish Watson at seven who’s been Scotland’s most consistent performer over the last two to three years.
Jamie maybe doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves but he puts in an unbelievable amount of work, a lot of it unseen. It allows others to play. He's a strong character and hopefully he won’t be out for too long.
Scotland could put Magnus Bradbury in at six, or bring someone else in, or shift Sam Skinner to six and put Scott Cummings on the bench. It really depends on whether they want an out-and-out lineout forward in there or a more physical presence, like a ball-carrier and a maul defender.
Matt can play six, and has done for Glasgow this season, but his skillset at the base of the scrum and the fact that he has done the No 8 role for the last three weeks of Scotland training suggest you’d probably keep him there.
Rory Darge is another option. He’s played six, seven and eight for Scotland U20s and covered those positions for Glasgow. He’s such an outstanding talent I would just love to see him in a Scotland 23 no matter where he plays.
The lineout will play a big part when it comes to selection. It is such a huge part of international rugby. Just look at the weekend. If you can win the ball then you can control territory and apply pressure. It’s whether the Scotland coaching team think that Matt Fagerson and the two second rows are enough in the lineout in terms of ball-winning. In which case you could play Darge and Watson together.
If they want to be a little bit more secure they might pick a more recognised lineout option at six and put Rory on the bench.
There are no questions around Rory’s form or ability. For me, he’s the most on-form back-row in the country. The only downside for him is that he has player of Hamish’s calibre in front of him.
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