Scotland Six Nations debrief: Townsend's future, Russell, Van der Merwe - seven key takeaways from 2024 championship

Scotland’s Six Nations campaign ended with two wins and three defeats – what did we learn from this year’s tournament?

A fourth-place finish and two wins from five was a poor Six Nations return for Scotland who at least managed to win the Calcutta Cup for the fourth year running. More was expected of Gregor Townsend’s team, particularly when it turned into one of the most open championships in years. Let the debrief begin …

1) Gregor Townsend: where he stands now and his future

Gregor Townsend’s contract runs until April 2026, by which time he’ll have been in post for nine years. It’s a long time to be in charge and while he has regularly freshened up his coaching team, players can become less responsive to hearing the same voice. Speculation that he might be moved upstairs is nothing more than that at the moment but Scottish Rugby is looking for a new performance director to replace Jim Mallinder, who’ll leave in June. Townsend has strong views on how the game is run and has voiced concerns about the lack of young native talent coming through the Scottish system and into the national team, hence the reliance on exiles, imports and those who qualify on residency. Scottish Rugby last month launched a new male performance pathway programme “designed to retain the country’s position in the world’s top five nations over the next decade”. The plan sees the reinstatement of the Scotland A team, more pro-side reserve fixtures, expanded academies and the scrapping of Super6. Townsend was involved, submitting a paper. Whether a director of rugby role would be enough to sustain him is a moot point. At 50, you suspect his coaching ambitions still burn bright and he certainly feels there is potential for growth in the current Scotland squad. “We believe there is much more to come from this group,” he said when he signed his new deal.

The emergence of Andy Christie can seen as a positive from a Scotland perspective.The emergence of Andy Christie can seen as a positive from a Scotland perspective.
The emergence of Andy Christie can seen as a positive from a Scotland perspective.

2) Gregor Townsend: a statistical appraisal

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Statistically speaking, Townsend is Scotland’s most successful head coach of the professional era based on a win percentage of 54.5 per cent from 79 matches. Set against that is the failure to qualify from the pool stage of the World Cup in both 2019 and 2023. His record in the Six Nations is more nuanced. Across seven campaigns, his teams have finished third twice, fourth four times and fifth once. Third place is the high water mark for any Scotland side in the 25 years since Italy joined the championship. Townsend is the only coach to achieve it twice, with Ian McGeechan, Frank Hadden and Scott Johnson doing it once each. Townsend has taken charge of 35 Six Nations matches in total and has overseen 17 victories, 17 defeats and one draw. Three wins per season is his best return, something he has achieved four times. This year’s campaign saw Scotland win just twice, against Wales and England, the latter for the fourth time in a row.

3) Finn Russell: more important than ever

Only Thomas Ramos (63) scored more points than Finn Russell (55) in the 2024 Six Nations but even the France full-back/stand-off couldn’t beat the Scotland man when it came to place-kicking accuracy. Russell missed just one shot at goal throughout the entire tournament, a conversion attempt against Italy. Across the five games the Bath man landed 11 of 12 conversions and 11 of 11 penalties. The fly-half isn’t Bath’s regular kicker and came into the championship saying it was an area of his game that needed improvement. He certainly delivered and given that four of Scotland’s five games were settled by a margin of four points or fewer, the importance of accuracy off the tee can’t be overstated. Russell, who also provided three try assists, shared the captaincy with Rory Darge and took the added responsibility in his stride. Townsend was non-committal about continuing with co-captains but did say he expects to have more than one skipper for the summer tour of the Americas.

Duhan van der Merwe scored five tries for Scotland, including a brace against England.Duhan van der Merwe scored five tries for Scotland, including a brace against England.
Duhan van der Merwe scored five tries for Scotland, including a brace against England.

4) Back row riches and emergence of Andy Christie

Scotland began the campaign with a back row of Luke Crosbie, Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson and ended it with Andy Christie, Rory Darge and Jack Dempsey. Townsend will be pleased with the strength in depth here and in particular the form of Christie who enjoyed a breakthrough tournament after excellent club form with Saracens. Excluded from the match-day squad for the opener in Wales, Christie came off the bench against France and England then started the final two games in Rome and Dublin. He was Scotland’s top performer against Ireland in what was only his second Test start. Ritchie, Scotland’s captain across the previous 18 months, was in and out the team but can come again.

5) Duhan van der Merwe: mixed tournament despite five tries

Duhan van der Merwe was one of the few Scotland players who made it into the various teams of the tournament and he was instrumental in the two matches the Scots won. A try double in the 27-26 nailbiter against Wales and a hat-trick in the 30-21 victory over England underlined his importance. His Calcutta Cup performance was simply sensational and took him to one short of Stuart Hogg’s all-time Scotland try record of 27. But the big winger struggled to impose himself in the defeats by Italy and Ireland in rounds four and five as the campaign fell short for the Scots. He ended as the tournament’s joint top try-scorer, on five, alongside Irish hooker Dan Sheehan.

Scotland's Finn Russell was impressive once again - especially from the boot.Scotland's Finn Russell was impressive once again - especially from the boot.
Scotland's Finn Russell was impressive once again - especially from the boot.

6) Mental strength called into question

The aftermath of the Italy defeat saw Scotland’s mental fortitude called into question as they allowed a 22-10 lead to slip, eventually losing 31-29. It was their first defeat in Rome since 2012 and brought to an end the run of 13 consecutive victories over the Azzurri. Steve Tandy, Scotland’s assistant coach, mounted a strong defence of the squad’s character in the aftermath but senior players Grant Gilchrist and Finn Russell later came out and admitted the group needed to be mentally stronger, and Townsend agreed. How that’s achieved is another matter. The squad work with Aaron Walsh, an experienced mental skills coach, and Townsend said it was still “a work-on”, noting that such lapses are common across sport, but the coach knows that it tends to be mental strength that separates champions from the rest.

7) Six Nations has become an open championship

If you can set aside the pain of Scotland’s defeat in Rome, the rise of Italy has been the most heartening aspect of this year’s tournament. They lost only two of their five games, something they had never done before in the Six Nations, and avoided the wooden spoon for the first time since 2015. Wins over Scotland and Wales and a draw with France helped them pick up 11 points and they deserved to end up higher than fifth. Scotland, who lost three games, finished a place above by virtue of picking up four bonus points to Italy’s one. Italy’s renaissance was a victory for the little guy but when England stunned Ireland at Twickenham it felt as if the cloak of invincibility had fallen from the champions’ shoulders. Andy Farrell’s side went on to retain their title but there is a sense that they will have more challengers next year. France, without Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, looked rudderless at times but still managed to finish second. England were the great unpredictables and Wales were simply awful.