GAVIN Hastings has admitted that Scotland’s performances over the Autumn Test series have left him looking forward to 2015 with a quiet confidence that the national side can at last make strides, both in the RBS Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup.
The former Scotland and British Lions captain has been impressed by how the Scotland players have bought into the ethos of head coach Vern Cotter and is hopeful that the three Autumn Tests, which yielded the highest number of tries (11) since 2007, saw the national side despatch Argentina and Tonga and deliver a valiant display in defeat against World champions New Zealand, will not prove to be another false dawn.
Although Scotland will begin the Six Nations against France, who they have been second best against on the last eight occasions in Paris, Hastings has also highlighted the emergence of Glasgow stand-off Finn Russell and the leadership of Greig Laidlaw, as well as the clear development of a style of play the players are comfortable with, as reasons Scottish rugby fans can view 2015 with some relish.
The 61 times-capped Hastings believes that in the straight-talking Cotter, Scotland may at last have the coach to lead the international team out of the doldrums.
He said: “If you look at the Autumn Series as a whole then there is no doubt that we have to be very positive about what Scotland have produced over the three Tests.
“To start with, when was the last time that Scotland scored five tries against Argentina? Then in the past, when we have had a positive result, we have not followed that up, and although we lost against New Zealand we were highly competitive for the full 80 minutes.
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“To take that on and finish with a victory against a Tonga side who were coming to Scotland off two good Test victories, had beaten us on their last trip here and were a real banana skin waiting to happen, was very pleasing and again it was the manner in which we won the game, scoring five tries to boot, after we had to overcome a sticky spell early on.
“So what the Autumn Test series has shown is that Vern Cotter has the side playing in a very positive fashion, that the players have bought into his coaching and that there is a real unity and we are all on message.
“Short of beating New Zealand in the second Test, I don’t think we could really have asked for much more and I think we can look forward to the Six Nations with a quiet confidence.”
The evolving of a style of play that has made the Scots a bristling proposition over the last three internationals, coupled with head coach Cotter’s determination to continue to improve his charges, has all gone down well with Hastings.
He added: “The way that Vern Cotter has us playing clearly suits the players. We do not have the best kicking game in the international arena and so he has tried to get us to keep hold of the ball, play at a high tempo and make a real nuisance of ourselves in the breakdown and it has been very effective.
“I also liked the fact that post-match Vern made the point that the players would go away with individual instructions on how they needed them to improve their games going forward to the Six Nations.
“Really, from my standpoint it is a case of more of the same please and hopefully with the three home games against Wales, Italy and Ireland, if we can maintain the levels and consistency we showed over the autumn series we can really be competitive.
“But we have set ourselves a standard now with these performances and it is vital we do not drop away as Scotland teams have in the past after a good autumn, that will be the acid test of where we are at, and with the Rugby World Cup to come later in 2015, there will be even more onus on this Six Nations.”
When it comes to the emergence of Russell, Hastings was effusive in his praise of a talent that he believes will continue to blossom as he acquires more experience and game time in dark blue, while the man once regarded as the best full-back of his era in world rugby has no doubt that Laidlaw has played himself into pole position for the captaincy.
“I am probably most excited about the progress of Finn Russell at stand-off. He gives us something very different to Duncan Weir, or Ruaridh Jackson for that matter, and I thought the way he ran the game was excellent,” said Hastings. “Considering how little time young Russell has had in top class rugby since he broke through at Glasgow he has a bit of an old head on young shoulders. He takes the ball up very well, his kicking is sound, he made a couple of good breaks against Tonga and against New Zealand and when he was up against Dan Carter was completely unfazed.
“So he has an excellent temperament as well as all the skills needed to really make the No 10 jersey his own. On top of that, as he gets more experience Russell is only going to mature and grow in the role. So he could be a real find for Scotland.”
Turning his attention to Laidlaw, Hastings said: “I think Greig has done a great job as skipper for us over the series and he has put himself in a very strong position to continue that over the Six Nations,” said Hastings.
“l think it looks like Vern Cotter is the type of coach who, if he is pleased with his players and what they are giving him, keeps faith in them and Greig has done very well. Obviously there was the disappointment of the missed kick against New Zealand but he had a very solid game against Tonga, so he must have a very good chance of continuing to captain the side in 2015.”
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