Scotland due applause for progress, but more is needed

Gregor Townsend can be justifiably proud of his first Six Nations season finishing above England and France even if two of Scotland's three victories owed little to his running rugby philosophy. Certainly Townsend would have bitten your arm off if you'd offered him three wins after the final whistle in Cardiff.

The Scots started this tournament poorly and finished up much the same way. In between times they played some compelling stuff, especially in the first half against England, but also for spells against Ireland. Townsend’s task is to persuade his players to bring their best all the time, not just when the planets are favourably aligned, because the first half in Rome was a horror show.

Italy admittedly finally started firing live rounds and Tomasso Allan came of age but any shots the Scots managed were aimed only at their own foot.

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“I’m somewhat satisfied,” said Townsend, pictured, choosing his words carefully when asked about the tournament as a whole. “There will always be things to improve.

Captain John Barclay scores Scotlands second try as the visitors are made to dig deep for the victory. Picture: Ian Rutherford

“The England performance was a great performance and a great win because of what it meant for the country, but having watched it a few times I know we could have been better – and that was probably our best performance.

“We demand a lot of our players. We know they can deliver and it is about doing that over 80 minutes and also away from home against different opposition. That’s the challenge we have. This is a brilliant championship. The standard of rugby has gone up over the past few years. It is very hard to win away from home.

“We are pleased we won. Three wins is a big achievement. But we’re not pleased with how we played against Wales and with not taking chances against Ireland or our first half performance today. But nothing’s ever perfect and we understand there will be times when we don’t play as well and we have to find a way to get better, find a way to win. That’s what we did today.”

If Townsend and the coaching team get pass marks for their three wins, they, like the players, have plenty of ‘work ons’ for the months ahead, chief amongst them selection.

Captain John Barclay scores Scotlands second try as the visitors are made to dig deep for the victory. Picture: Ian Rutherford

If picking Chris Harris in the centre against Wales looks like a mistake in hindsight, retaining him in the match-day squad for France compounds the original error. And not using him against France seemed to confirm everyone’s suspicion that Harris had lost his coach’s confidence.

Starting Richie Gray might have helped eliminate the lineout woes in Dublin and Rome because that area certainly improved when he appeared around the one hour mark on Saturday.

The back row of the scrum looks a little unbalanced and question marks remain about the effectiveness of Ryan Wilson.The squad could still do with a big bruiser of a 6/8 although David Denton filled the role competently enough when called upon.

The half backs and midfield is another area of concern. Peter Horne was selected for his distribution but, against England and especially Ireland, that part of his game broke down under pressure. Nick Grigg runs hard and hits well above his weight but he probably doesn’t have the sleight of hand, speed or vision to create regular opportunites for the finisher Huw Jones, who had his least effective game on Saturday.

The player Townsend needs is Duncan Taylor, who brings the communication skills of Horne but adds so much more both in defence and attack. He is suffering from a head injury.

Greig Laidlaw’s leadership and kicking from the tee are vital to Scotland’s success but Ali Price is much the greater threat with ball in hand and his service is several gears slicker. His introduction made a big difference against 

On the plus side is the re-emergence of Grant Gilchrist as a force, while of several new faces have put their hands up. Jamie Bhatti and Simon Berghan will make life difficult for some veterans to get a look in. In WP Nel, Zander Fagerson and Berghan Scotland now have three Test-class tightheads; the first time anyone can make that claim in the professional 

Blair Kinghorn is the other newbie to emerge with credit. Scotland are short of wingers and, while Sean Maitland looks better than ever, Tommy Seymour had a quiet tournament. Kinghorn may well add to his tally of caps this summer when, Townsend hinted, one or two senior players may be rested.