Scotland debrief: The best performers, biggest concerns and rising stars from Autumn Nations Series

Scotland’s Autumn Nations Series record of three wins from four is a cause for cautious optimism ahead of the Six Nations but Gregor Townsend knows his side face the toughest of tests in their opening game against England at BT Murrayfield on February 5.

Scotland players wave to the fans after the final Autumn Nations Series match against Japan at BT Murrayfield (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)
Scotland players wave to the fans after the final Autumn Nations Series match against Japan at BT Murrayfield (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

The Calcutta Cup holders can take great heart from the win over Australia but the defeat by South Africa was a setback. England’s subsequent win over the Boks was a statement result and Eddie Jones will arrive in Edinburgh next year hellbent on revenge for last season’s shock defeat by the Scots at Twickenham.

Scotland bookended their matches against the Southern Hemisphere giants with wins over Tonga and Japan and Townsend was able to test new players and new systems, particularly against the Pacific Islanders.

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The dozen debutants

Kyle Steyn was Scotland's top points scorer in the Autumn Nations Series despite starting just one match against Tonga (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Townsend wanted to add strength in depth to his squad and used the series to introduce a slew of fresh faces. Of the 12 new caps, eight were dished out in the Tonga game, four of them to subs who never got another taste of the action - Luke Crosbie, Jamie Dobie, Ross Thompson and Marshall Sykes. The youthful quartet will benefit from the experience and it was also good to see Sione Tuipulotu rewarded for his fine form for Glasgow. The real breakout stars of the series were Pierre Schoeman and Ewan Ashman. Schoeman, who started the first three Tests and was a sub against Japan, really impressed as he made the step up. He will provide tough competition at loosehead. Hooker Ashman’s stunning try against Australia stole the headlines and his loan switch to Glasgow should give him the game-time he needs ahead of the Six Nations. Honourable mentions to Rufus McLean for a try double on his debut against Tonga, Josh Bayliss for his versatility and Jamie Hodgson for key contributions off the bench against Australia and South Africa. There were also brief cameos for Javan Sebastian and Dylan Richardson against Japan.

Experimentation

Blair Kinghorn acquitted himself well against Tonga in his first Test outing at stand-off and it seems both his club coach, Mike Blair, and Townsend see his future at 10. Less successful was the rejigged back row against South Africa which saw Jamie Ritchie switched to openside, Nick Haining at blindside and Hamish Watson rotated on to the bench. Watson doesn’t seem to catch a break against the Springboks and it’s hard to escape the feeling that you need your best players on the pitch when you face the world champions.

Star of the show

Stuart Hogg set the new Scotland try record in the win over Japan (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Stuart Hogg rightly stole the headlines with his record-breaking exploits. His try against Japan made him Scotland’s all-time leading scorer on 25 but it was his brace against South Africa that showed his outstanding finishing ability. At 29, Hogg is at the top of his game and rightly drew praise from Townsend for his conditioning and his attitude. “He looks sharp, he’s lost a bit of weight, he’s got through these three weeks of Test matches in a similar if not better condition than when he started. That’s a difficult thing on the back of a long season and a Lions tour,” said the coach.

Tough shift

Matt Scott hadn’t started a game for Scotland since Townsend’s first match in charge four and half years ago. He was reintroduced against South Africa and struggled to get a toehold in a game that Scotland were always chasing. The centre doesn’t deserve to be cast aside on the basis of one lukewarm outing against arguably the best team in the world.

Townsend’s Corinthian spirit

It was heartening to see Townsend taking a stand against Rassie Erasmus’ antics at Murrayfield when the Springbok director of rugby was caught on camera dissing an unnamed Scotland winger. The Scotland coach also called him out for his OTT criticism of referee Nic Berry during the Lions tour and Townsend’s assertion that “we can’t fall into that trap of winning at all costs” was a breath of fresh air. It’s rare in modern professional sport to hear a coach say such things. Less edifying was the abuse he took on Twitter in the aftermath.

Kicking concerns

Scotland scored 18 tries, averaging just shy of 30 points per game and had 12 different try-scorers but the figures were clearly skewed by the Tonga match (60 points, 10 tries). There will be some concerns about missed opportunities in front of goal. Only five of the ten tries against Tonga were converted, when Blair Kinghorn and Ross Thompson shared kicking duties. Finn Russell landed only two from five kicks in the loss to South Africa. He bumped that up to four from five against Japan and he also missed only one in the Australia game. AB Zondagh, the Scotland assistant coach, played down the misses in the Boks defeat but, in an ultra-competitive Six Nations, most games are likely to come down to fine margins.

World of pain

The defeat by South Africa and Ireland’s stunning win over the All Blacks put into sharp focus just what a monumental task awaits Scotland at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Townsend’s side have been paired with the Boks and the Irish in Pool B in France and will almost certainly need to beat one of them if they are to avoid back-to-back group stage exits for the first time ever.

Special mention

Kyle Steyn scored four tries in the win over Tonga and never started another game! The Glasgow man got the last 20 minutes against Australia but such is the competition on the wings that he was surplus to requirements when South Africa and Japan came calling. Deserves kudos for a fine finishing display in the opener in what was his first start for Scotland and only his second cap.

Scotland’s autumn results

Tonga (h) won 60-14

Australia (h) won 15-13

South Africa (h) lost 15-30

Japan (h) won 29-20

Scotland’s autumn try-scorers

4 - Kyle Steyn

3 - Stuart Hogg

2 - Rufus McLean

1 - Pierre Schoeman

1 - George Turner

1 - Oli Kebble

1 - Nick Haining

1 - Hamish Watson

1 - Ewan Ashman

1 - Darcy Graham

1 - Duhan van der Merwe

1 - Stuart McInally

Scotland’s autumn points scorers

20 - Kyle Steyn

19 - Finn Russell (5 con; 3 pen)

15 - Stuart Hogg

10 - Rufus McLean

6 - Blair Kinghorn (3 con)

5 - Pierre Schoeman

5 - George Turner

5 - Oli Kebble

5 - Nick Haining

5 - Hamish Watson

5 - Ewan Ashman

5 - Darcy Graham

5 - Duhan van der Merwe

5 - Stuart McInally

4 - Ross Thompson (2 con)

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