Scotland may be only hope of victory in testing summer for Lions nations - Allan Massie

Long ago when there were few international matches and replacements were permitted only for injured players, one often had a good idea of one’s country’s best.

Gregor Townsend leads his Scotland side into the first of three summer tests against Argentina today. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
Gregor Townsend leads his Scotland side into the first of three summer tests against Argentina today. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Now, with so many Tests – a dozen perhaps in a calendar year – and matchday squads of 23, almost all of whom are likely to get on to the field, if only in some cases for ten minutes or even fewer, one has no such clear idea. This is all the more the case when established players are omitted from summer tours and given a probably well-deserved rest. One might say that coaches of international teams now behave more like club coaches and I suppose this is reasonable, things being as they are. So Scotland have gone to Argentina without Suart Hogg, Finn Russell and Chris Harris, also without Willem Nel who would, I think, still be on the bench if we were playing England or France.

The next weeks will be a testing time for the four Lions countries – so testing that one sage gloomily suggested this week that Scotland might be the only one of the four to win even one of the twelve matches being played; that’s to say that England in Australia, Ireland in New Zealand and Wales in South Africa would all lose 3-0. That’s a dire forecast, but it may be a sadly accurate one, even though I will be surprised if England don’t win at least one Test in Australia. Ireland may be the second best international side in the Northern Hemisphere and perhaps capable of beating anyone in Dublin, but beating the All Blacks in New Zealand? That’s uphill work. There are 12 from Leinster in their team and some of them must be a bit scarred by the memory of their mauling at the hands of La Rochelle in the Heineken final. As for Wales against South Africa, there will be fans watching with dread, even with their eyes closed.

And so to Scotland in Argentina. Geography, Covid and the collapse of the Southern Hemisphere’s club competition has meant that most of Argentina’s best players are once again plying their trade in Europe. So their new coach, Michael Cheika, much-travelled himself, has been calling his men home from France, England and even Edinburgh. Richly talented though these players are, it may take more than one match for him to have them playing as a team. So the first of the three Tests may offer our best chance of a victory. And of course, if you get ahead in a three-match series it can be easier to win again.

Despite the absence of players being rested, Scotland should start more coherent than the Pumas. All the same there are other absentees. Hamish Watson is not fit for today’s match and of course Jamie Ritchie hasn’t played since being injured in the first round of the Six Nations. He has been badly missed. Indeed if twelve months ago you had said that Scotland might beat any of the world’s top ten ranking countries without Hogg, Russell, Ritchie and Watson, you might have had to search for anyone ready to agree with you.

In the absence of Watson, Gregor Townsend has gone for the hardest, most combative back row available: Matt Fagerson, Magnus Bradbury and Luke Crosbie. This means that Glasgow’s bright-shining young star Rory Darge won’t be on the field till sometime in the second-half when the game may have opened up – something more often said than happening in these days of multiple replacements.

The other most interesting selection is of Rory Hutchinson, but at full-back rather than his club position inside-centre. For years English rugby writers, notably Stuart Barnes, have been surprised by Hutchinson’s omission from the Scotland side, his creative ability being apparent to them even in an often struggling Northampton side. Gregor has spoken of using Hutchinson as a second receiver (as indeed he has often used Stuart Hogg). It’s also the case that he has been consistently loyal to Sam Johnson, under-rated, perhaps unfairly, by many.

The disturbing question relates to goal-kicking. Presumably Blair Kinghorn will be entrusted with the job, though from the tee he is more powerful than accurate. In contrast there has never in my memory been an Argentina side without a top-class goal-kicker. I guess we had better score some tries.

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