Allan Massie: Gregor Townsend boosted by Scotland’s strength in depth

George Horne was set to make his debut for Scotland against the USA. Picture: Fotosport/David Gibson
George Horne was set to make his debut for Scotland against the USA. Picture: Fotosport/David Gibson
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Long ago, in the amateur days, Andy Irvine remarked that, while Scotland’s first XV had a chance of beating anybody, a second XV would lose to the second XV of most of their rivals, and a Scotland third XV would most likely be slaughtered.

This seemed a fair assessment, though one might add that Ireland would then have been in much the same position. Well, happily, things have changed for the better.

Consequently, for tonight’s match against the USA, Gregor Townsend has confidently selected a starting XV, only one member of which, captain for the day Stuart Hogg, would be certain to start for a full-strength Scotland side.

Seven of the XV have never started an international, and two of them, George Horne and Matt Fagerson, will be winning their first caps. Yet I doubt if anyone thinks that Townsend is taking a big gamble nor, indeed, that he is underestimating the challenge posed by the USA on their home soil. The Americans have qualified for next year’s World Cup, and they have given Scotland teams, some more experienced than this one, a hard time in the past.

Still, inexperienced as it may be, there is more than promise in the scrum and firepower in the back division where the prospect of seeing Hogg and Blair Kinghorn playing off each other in the back three is enticing. Inexperienced though the halves may be, neither Adam Hastings nor George Horne, pictured, is lacking in self-confidence. Horne had a terrific season with Glasgow and has shown not only a willingness, but an eagerness, to take charge of games, even when surrounded by seasoned internationals.

Hastings will be watched with special interest, not only because he is Gavin’s son (though in his style of running he is more like his uncle Scott than his father), but because the role of understudy to Finn Russell is one that rather urgently needs to be filled – even though both Peter Horne and Ruaridh Jackson have performed well for Scotland in the past.

Elsewhere Eddie Jones’ England chariot is not running as sweetly as it did a year or 18 months ago.

It would be foolish to say the wheels are in immediate danger of coming off, but they have certainly developed a bit of a wobble.

Setting aside the fact that no good team, at any level of the game, should lose a match in which they are 24-3 up after 20 minutes, England’s defeat in that extraordinary match in Johannesburg was their fourth in a row, fifth if you include the Barbarians game; all the more remarkable when you think of the long winning run in the first 18 months after Jones took charge.

They have now lost to South Africa, Ireland, France and Scotland, and the defeat at Murrayfield followed a narrow win (12-6) over Wales at Twickenham – a game that you didn’t have to be Welsh to think England had been fortunate not to lose.

The slump is all the more extraordinary because England have been failing in the area of the game where they have almost always been strong. Even stodgy and unimaginative England sides have had forward power, but Jones’s forwards have come off second best, especially at the breakdown, to all their recent opponents.

There has been criticism of their propensity to concede penalties, but teams that are slow at the breakdown, either in support of the ball-carrier or in challenging the opposition, are always likely to be penalised, frustration breeding indiscipline.

Last Saturday the England players lost their composure when South Africa rallied and came back at them, and the first two South African tries were assisted by English mistakes. England indeed were very much second best for the middle part of the game and, though they scored two late tries, the second in the last play of the match, the final score of 39-42 flattered them and wasn’t a fair reflection of the game.

That said, I would be surprised if anyone in the England camp has been saying “we only lost by three and if there had been another five minutes…”

Elsewhere there was one remarkable result in the under-20 Championship, France beating New Zealand 16-7. Even more remarkable than the win was the French dominance up front and, in particular, the effectiveness of their driving maul from the line-out.

They repeatedly made ten or 15 yards at speed and the young New Zealanders, who otherwise played some characteristically audacious rugby, seemed completely flummoxed, at sea, with no idea how to check or counter the tactic.

It is so rare to see a New Zealand side being so completely dominated in one area of the game that it can scarcely be allowed to pass without notice. This was certainly more extraordinary than seeing Canada utterly unable to cope with Scotland’s mauling in Edmonton.