Last week one English journalist asked the question which is on every Scot’s mind… does a good Champions Cup showing by the twin pro teams at least hint at an equally promising Six Nations campaign starting in two weeks’ time against Italy?
It may be the curmudgeon in me but, to borrow from George Gershwin, it ain’t necessarily so, and reading between the lines, it is just possible that Gregor Townsend agrees, not that the national coach would ever admit as much out loud.
Instead, when he named his squad last week he listed 19 players who were unavailable through injury; an absurdly high number that rises to 20 with the inclusion of Hamish Watson after the flanker suffered a suspected fractured hand while playing in Edinburgh’s win over Montpellier on Friday night. I counted only seven of the stricken who would be competing for a spot in the starting XV: Watson, John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury, David Denton, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray and Duncan Taylor, while several of of their colleagues had almost no chance of making a Six Nations appearance.
Townsend does not go digging for excuses, although you fancy the Scotland coach may need a few before this Championship is over. Due to form and fitness, Scotland are paper thin at hooker, in midfield and back row in a squad that was a little light on world-class quality to begin with.
Edinburgh’s success in the Champions Cup has been built on South African and Fijian foundations. Three Saffas play key roles for Richard Cockerill; Pierre Schoeman, Jaco van der Walt and the muscular winger Duhan van der Merwe. All could be replaced by Scots. Allan Dell deputised for Schoeman in three European games and the world continued to turn on its axis.
The same cannot be said if Viliame Mata were taken out of the Edinburgh equation. The Fijian eight is the oil that keeps everything else ticking over. He carried more than twice as far as every other Edinburgh forward combined on Friday night, including substitutes. On current form he is better than former Glasgow favourite Leone Nakarawa and Edinburgh coach Cockerill’s insistence that the club would fight to keep him is heartening even if it is difficult to square with the maths.
Glasgow have eased into the Champions Cup quarters looking better on the road, in Cardiff and Lyon, than they did at home. Too many key Scotland players are out of form and out of favour including Alex Dunbar (who failed to make Townsend’s squad) and Huw Jones in the backs, and Adam Ashe and twin looseheads Alex Allan and Jamie Bhatti up front.
Allan has enjoyed only one start all season and even that was cut short by a red card. Townsend’s response to this news, “at least he’ll be fresh” may have been tongue in cheek; it can be difficult to tell sometimes? The longest shift Allan has managed all season is 40 minutes, against the Cheetahs, back in September. Poor preparation for the Six Nations.
Bhatti has had three starts although one of them, against the Southern Kings, didn’t last any longer than 43 minutes when he was replaced by Allan. He managed 70 minutes against Cardiff in November of last year. Edinburgh’s Dell is in pole position to start against Italy simply because, with five starts to his credit, he has had time in the saddle.
“Allan Dell maybe hasn’t started every game,” Townsend argued, “but he’s been coming off the bench and playing at a high level with a team that’s playing really well. In terms of his physical state, he’ll be in a great position going into the tournament.
“We’ve been really pleased with how Jamie Bhatti has rediscovered his form. He’s carried well and his scrummaging has been excellent, I thought he did very well over in Treviso. With Alex [Allan] missing those games, it’s allowed Jamie to get back in and show the form he was in for us the previous season.
“A couple of the games Huw [Jones] has missed for Glasgow, he was injured,” added Townsend, moving on to his outside centre. “He obviously didn’t get selected for the Cardiff game [or yesterday’s match with Saracens], but someone like Huw has done well in the past for us having not played that much rugby leading into last year’s Six Nations, for example.”
Quite apart from all the injuries and lack of form, Townsend highlighted one other reason not to put your mortgage on Scotland lifting the silverware in March: this will arguably be the toughest Six Nations in its long and distinguished history.
The competing countries sit second (Ireland), third (Wales), fourth (England) and seventh (Scotland) in the world rankings. (France are ninth and Italy 15th). In addition, the coach could have added, Les Bleus can beat anyone in the world when the spirit moves them, especially in Paris where Scotland must travel.
He has a point. One year ago England were second, Ireland third, Scotland fifth and Wales a lowly seventh place. Wales’ unbeaten autumn series has propelled them up the rankings and made this the toughest Six Nations on record, in terms of world rankings. Against that Scotland have to face three countries ranked above them and two below, so you could argue that Townsend has it easier than some of his predecessors.
If those were indeed subtle warning signs coming from the head coach there is plenty on the positive side of Scotland’s rugby ledger. Finn Russell is playing the best rugby of his life even if he didn’t show it against Ulster last weekend. A number of players are returning to full fitness, including David Denton, Magnus Bradbury, Richie Gray, Zander Fagerson and Fraser Brown. They may be available for Paris in the third round of matches.
More important is the form of Edinburgh. Yes, the foreign recruits have played a big part in the club’s revival but the manner in which the pack stood up to Montpellier and Toulon’s forward behemoths must give Townsend hope that Scotland have another means of gaining a toehold in the upcoming Tests rather than relying wholly upon the harum scarum stuff that backfired in spectacular fashion against Wales almost exactly one year ago.
“Yes, and I think that would apply to Glasgow as well,” Townsend replied. “The way they won against Cardiff in tough weather conditions, they showed through set-piece and game management that they can find a way to win.
“There has to be a balance. At times, we’re not going to be able to play high-tempo rugby because of weather conditions, because of what someone might be doing to us defensively or what they’re doing in the backfield. Our players, through excellent coaching at their clubs, have that understanding of what is required to win a game of rugby.”
The Scots are going to need every advantage they can get to thrive in what has become rugby’s toughest tournament.