Allan Massie: Scots passed character test by ending tour on high

Magnus Bradbury in action against Argentina. Picture: �Fotosport/David Gibson
Magnus Bradbury in action against Argentina. Picture: �Fotosport/David Gibson
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Sometimes you can get greedy. The first half against Argentina was so good, so enterprising and joyful, that it would have been nice to end Scotland’s season at half-time. The second half was a bit disappointing, as often happens when a team has all but won the game by the interval; there tends to be an unconscious relaxation. So the best thing one can say about the second 40 minutes is that the Scottish players got lots of tackling practice, and defended pretty well.

Gregor Townsend will have learned a lot this summer about his players’ character. They got a nasty shock against the USA in Houston, and some Scotland squads of the past might not have recovered from this in only a week. As it happened, it was obvious from the kick-off last Saturday that confidence hadn’t been bruised, only pride.

It was a development tour, and several of the youngest and least experienced players have come good, even very good: Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings and George Horne among the backs, Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie and Lewis Carmichael up front. That’s quite a good return for a three-match tour.

There were disappointments. Ali Price had had an up-and-down season: 
brilliant in the autumn internationals, erratic and short of confidence in the spring. The tour gave him the chance to re-assert himself; it ended with an injury after only a short time on the field against Canada, and he had to watch young George Horne, his Glasgow club-mate and rival play a starring role.

Likewise Mark Bennett, who has had such a wretched time with injuries, might have seen his late call-up for the tour as a chance to return to his best; but it hasn’t worked out like that.

Scotland have an unusually – one might say, unprecedentedly – rich crop of centres, but one hopes to see Bennett, who is still only 25, regaining the brilliant form of the 2015 World Cup.

Argentina, one has to say, were poor. Inclusion in Super Rugby and the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship was supposed to strengthen them. It hasn’t worked out like that. Likewise the policy of confining selection to players based in Argentina looks unwise, however sensible the intention to strengthen their domestic game may be. The Argentine teams that did well in the last three World Cups had a lot of players based in Europe. The truth surely is that you have to be very strong domestically to be able to restrict selection to home-based players. We have always realised that we can’t, even though towards the end of the amateur era – in 1984, for instance – we were almost able to do so. Now, despite the improvement shown by both Glasgow and Edinburgh since the dark early days of professional rugby, a good many of any Scotland XV will usually be drawn from clubs in England, France or indeed Wales.

Likewise, South Africa, 
historically one of the world’s top two rugby nations, has perforce abandoned, for the time being anyway, the policy of picking only home-based players. One can’t think they would have won the first two Tests against England if they hadn’t recalled Willie Le Roux from Wasps, Faf De Klerk from Sale, and Duane Vermeulen, now unattached but with Toulon until recently. Argentina have another problem, compounding that caused by their selection 
policy. They have only one Super Rugby club – the 
Jaguares. Consequently their international side – the Pumas – is effectively a club side. Chris Paterson has wondered how, if your national side is the same as your club side, you can “snap into the higher demands and intensity of international rugby… How do you make it special? How do you avoid it being ‘just another game’”?

This seems to me very much to the point. Ireland are the Six Nations champions. Leinster won the European Champions Cup. But I doubt if Joe Schmidt would even think of fielding an all-Irish Leinster XV in the Six Nations, and not only because doing so would require him to omit such players as Munster’s Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony, but also his current captain Ulster’s Rory Best.

So I would guess that if Argentina are to make any sort of a show in Japan next summer, they will have to acknowledge that they need players based in Europe, especially in France.

Gregor Townsend, pictured left, is happily free of such political worries, though he may be casting an anxious eye in the direction of Paris to see how Finn Russell adapts to the new environment and the challenge of playing for Racing 92 in the Top 14. One feels that the apparently unflappable Finn will do this more easily than many 
others might.

That said, he will have a rival there for the No 10 jersey in Pat Lambie, another South African exile whom one wouldn’t be surprised to see being recalled for the World Cup next year.