Scotland's Huw Jones conundrum and why Chris Harris has the edge at outside centre

Scotland's Huw Jones (left) and Chris Harris.Scotland's Huw Jones (left) and Chris Harris.
Scotland's Huw Jones (left) and Chris Harris.
For some of us Huw Jones has been the Bonnie Prince Charlie of Scottish rugby: will ye no’ come back again?

Imprinted on memory is that wonderful Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield in 2018 when he scored two tries, the fist triggered off by one of Finn Russell’s wondrous passes deep in our own half. If on the day after that match, anyone had told you that he wouldn’t be in the Scotland World Cup squad in Japan eighteen months later, you might have politely told them “awa’ and boil your heid”.

Injuries have played a part in Jones’ in-out international career, but just as important has been the view that he is defensively unreliable, and that his undoubted attacking ability doesn’t at the top level compensate for a perceived defensive weakness. It has also of course been the case that the jerseys he might wear – numbers 13 and 15 – have been the property of Chris Harris and Stuart Hogg respectively. Harris’ emergence as an outstanding defender and the organiser of Scotland’s defence wide-out has been crucial, and indeed Jones isn’t the only brilliant attacking 13 to have found his way back to the Scotland XV blocked by Harris; there is also Edinburgh’s Mark Bennett who was a very young star of Vern Cotter’s 2015 World Cup team before his development was interrupted by a succession of injuries.

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The outside centre position is generally regarded as the key to successful defence. Whoever wears the number 13 jersey is responsible for locking the door and so denying space to dangerous runners out wide. Harris does this admirably and fewer tries have been scored from handline movements while he has been on the watch. He may not have Jones’ pace, nimble feet and power, and so is less dangerous ball in hand. But he does a very important job very well, probably better than any other Scotland 13 since Scott Hastings in the last ten years of the amateur game at international level.

Ideally of course you want a 13 who is both a master of defence and skillful and dangerous in attack. I suppose the two who best fit this bill in the Six Nations are Ireland’s Garry Ringrose and France’s Gael Fickou. Last week Ringrose was brilliant in Leinster’s demolition of Racing 92, a match in which Fickou was restricted to defensive duty.

Judgement is an essential quality: when to go in quickly, when to drift to deny the opposition space. Tries are as often conceded because of poor judgement as poor technique. There was a good example in the Edinburgh-Saracens game. Duhan van der Merwe has been criticised for his failure to prevent Elliot Daly’s try. It seemed to me it was his judgement that was at fault. He competed for a high ball that Daly, coming on to it fast from deep was always likely to win. Van der Merwe might have been wiser to hold off and tackle Daly the moment his feet touched the ground. That would have been the canny thing to do.

After my somewhat sour words last week about the Scottish clubs’ record in Europe, both did refreshingly well in their first round Cup matches. Admittedly Edinburgh lost to Saracens in a match that, for some time anyway, they looked like winning. But Saracens have been by some way the best team in the English Premiership this season. So it was a good effort to run them so close away from home.

Glasgow were away to Bath, a great club, but not currently a great team. Some would say “not even a good one”. Nevertheless winning European matches away from home has rarely been easy, except sometimes in the later stages of pool matches when a club with no chance of progressing has fielded a weak team. Moreover, despite having won in Italy the week before, Glasgow’s record away from home, has been dreadful all year. So winning was not going to be easy. A good start for them in Europe therefore with the penalty that secured the win being kicked by Duncan Weir. He doesn’t get many starts now, but I would always have him on the bench for an important match, if only because if you need someone to kick a late goal (conversion, penalty or drop) in the last minutes to win the game, there is no one more likely to put the ball over the bar and between the posts. a



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