What do Scotland want from this short summer tour? Three wins, obviously, starting tonight in the Commonwealth Stadium against Canada. But also, and more importantly in the longer term with the Rugby World Cup in the offing, a solution to the away-day woes from which they have suffered so grievously in recent seasons.
The record defeat at Twickenham in 2017 was the nadir of Vern Cotter’s time in charge, and the problems on the road have persisted to an extent under Gregor Townsend. True, the former stand-off began his tenure this time last year with wins against Italy in Singapore and Australia in Sydney, but this year’s Six Nations away outings kicked off with a calamitous display in Wales, continued with an error-strewn showing in Dublin, and ended with a hard-fought if barely merited win in Rome. If Scotland were simply a poor side we would have to accept such performances as par for the course.
But, as they showed in the evisceration of Australia in the Autumn Tests and the wins over England and France in the spring, they are capable of reaching pretty exalted heights, both in results and in the style of rugby they play.
So we know they are capable of great things, and that to realise their potential they have to start applying their talent more consistently. In games such as this evening’s, that means shrugging off whatever psychological issues they may have on the road and imposing their superiority from the start, as captain Grant Gilchrist acknowledged.
“We have to make sure we handle our business properly,” the Edinburgh lock said. “The first 20 minutes away from home is something we have to improve on, full stop. This tour is a great opportunity to address that: a chance to play our brand of rugby that we’ve seen work well at Murrayfield and maybe not away from home.
“We need to be more consistent away from home. That’s one of the main goals of the tour – to improve our consistency over three games away from Murrayfield. It doesn’t just happen for us at Murrayfield, we still have to work, but the majority of our best performances have been at home with the crowd there. We seem to click a lot easier. That’s one of the challenges: three games in a climate we’re not used to.”
A significant factor here, of course, is that by and large this Scotland line-up is not the one that has underperformed elsewhere. Of the side that began the 34-7 defeat by Wales in February, for example, only three – Chris Harris, Byron McGuigan and Ben Toolis – start against Canada. Out of the starting line-up from the last match, that two-point win in Rome, there is only one survivor: hooker Fraser Brown, who might well only be playing because of the injury to tour captain Stuart McInally.
So this is a very inexperienced Scotland side: one that should not be burdened by past failings, but one that cannot draw inspiration from past glories either. Jamie Ritchie and James Lang make their debuts at openside and centre respectively, and Adam Hastings and Lewis Carmichael should win their first caps off the bench. The onus is on them to get up to speed right away, but Gilchrist insisted that the rookies were mature enough to slot straight in at this level.
“Guys like Magnus [Bradbury] could have been Edinburgh captain, minus the incident,” he said, referring to the lapse of discipline after which the back-row forward was stripped of the captaincy by club coach Richard Cockerill. “I was right behind him as a great choice to captain Edinburgh; I think he will be in the future. “Jamie Ritchie could captain Edinburgh, could captain Scotland. These guys have got great leadership.
“They’re young, but they’re not young when they get on the training pitch. They know what they’re doing, they speak well, so for me, there’s a low amount of caps but when we’ve been training there’s not a low amount of voices.
“People are willing to stand up and speak and say what they think. I’m really excited, seeing this group.”
This is Gilchrist’s first time in charge of Scotland since the tour game against South Africa four years ago, since when a series of injuries has restricted his opportunities. At 27, he is approaching his peak, and is sure he is more resilient thanks to those enforced absences.
“These experiences make you stronger, make you a better person and a better rugby player, make you a better leader,” he added. “Everybody hates being injured, but if you can bounce back from it you become stronger and I am in a better place now than I ever was. Part of the reason is learning from setbacks and how to come back better.”
The Canadian squad, captained by DTH van der Merwe, includes some experienced campaigners of its own. The Warriors winger has 51 caps, both scrum-half Phil Mack and centre Nick Blevins will run up the half-century this evening, and former Glasgow prop Djustice Sears-Duru will win his 39th cap if he comes off the bench.
But such experience has counted for little of late and, after home-and-away defeats by Uruguay at the start of the year, the Canadians must now win through the repechage in autumn if they are to maintain their record of qualifying for every World Cup.
What is more, they have lost two key players to injury for this, their first outing against a Tier One nation in two years: Scotland-born half-back Gordon McRorie and back-row forward Tyler Ardron. Without those two in pivotal positions, the home team, ranked 21st in the world to Scotland’s sixth, could struggle to get decent ball.
If enough Canadians are in inspired form, and if a sufficient number of Scots fail to perform, a home win is perfectly possible. But the dry, warm conditions will suit Scotland’s high-tempo game plan and, provided they stick to that plan, the tourists should pick up a solid win and pick up momentum for the tougher challenges ahead against the United States and Argentina.