Why Autumn Nations Cup has come at the right time for Scotland

There are several senses in which the Nations Cup has come at the right time for Scotland. Having just finished fourth in the Six Nations, Gregor Townsend’s team will be far from favourites to win the new tournament, but they will at least go into it with their confidence high.

Stuart Hogg captained Scotland to victory in Italy in the Six Nations in February and will look for a repeat in the Autumn Nations Cup. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
Stuart Hogg captained Scotland to victory in Italy in the Six Nations in February and will look for a repeat in the Autumn Nations Cup. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

Recent results are one reason for that. The win in Wales last weekend was their fourth in a row following the victories over Georgia last month and France and Italy in the spring. If they beat the Italians again on Saturday, they will be just one result away from their best-ever runs of six straight wins in 1925-26 and 1989-90.

Then there is the way in which the squad has matured this year, with several still relatively young players having taken on the stature of senior internationals. Zander Fagerson, for example, at 24 and with 31 caps to his name, has emerged from the considerable shadow of WP Nel to take his place as one of the world’s leading tightheads. Jamie Ritchie, also 24, has needed only 20 caps to grow into a commanding figure in the back row. And Jonny Gray, a couple of years older, has long been one of the first names on the team sheet.

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It is not just the pack, either. Stuart Hogg’s individual talent has always been evident, but since becoming captain the full-back has succeeded in imbuing the whole squad with his deep self-belief. And at the other end of the back division, scrum-half Ali Price has demonstrated increasingly shrewd game management.

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend is wary of Italy's record in Florence. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

The same could be said of Townsend himself. If last year’s World Cup was a traumatic experience for the head coach, it was one to which he has responded rationally, by giving the squad a more adaptable game plan.

And yet, while the results, players and tactics have all shown progress, there are still a couple of downsides to consider. Losing Finn Russell and Adam Hastings to injury is a serious blow, for one thing, even if Duncan Weir, who is set to start against Italy, is a dependable replacement at stand-off.

Having four games in as many weekends could also tell against Scotland given the almost certain need to chop and change the starting line-up and their lack of depth compared to the likes of France and England. And the absence of crowds will also detract from the spectacle, as Townsend acknowledged last week.

“We’re lucky to be playing, but it would be nice if this tournament had crowds as well,” he said. “If we had crowds, it might be a really good change to what we normally do. In November, even though they’re friendlies, you’re always getting two of the big Southern Hemisphere nations, with sell-out crowds. It feels more than just a series of friendlies.

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“This is different because it’s a tournament. We’re travelling to Italy then two home games and hopefully an away game on the finals weekend. Every team has to adapt to the fact there’s no crowds there – that’s the big change.”

The most salient change to the team to face Italy will likely be the return of Weir, but in that game and the three that follow Townsend is also confident he can give opportunities to others both up front and in the back division while retaining a competitive team.

“Some of that will happen with injury, some will happen with players coming back from injuries like Sam Johnson - I’d imagine we might see him over the next couple of weeks.

“We’d like to give players in that front five an opportunity if they’re worthy of it, and the guys coming off the bench have made big impacts over the last couple of weeks. But we’ve got to make sure we’ve still got that cohesion from game to game and who we select for that game is appropriate to the opposition. It might be very different threats that Italy provide to that which Fiji provides, for example, so it might be different players that day.

“But one goal we have is to get through these four games with winning as our primary target but also having looked at a couple of players in each position. That’s already happening: 26 or 27 players have played in the first two games so that number’s going to go over 30. It might not be that everybody in our 35-man squad plays over the next four weeks but I’m sure we’ll get close to that number.”

Scotland beat Italy 17-0 in Rome back in February, but Townsend is wary of his opponents, who he believes have, like his own team, responded pragmatically to recent setbacks. “They’ve changed their game slightly. At the beginning of the Six Nations they were moving the ball from deep a lot and were very ambitious. They still have that ambition within their game, but they’re looking to kick more.

“They always have a good forward strength, a good front-row strength, and they’re a tough team to play against. We know we’ll have to improve from Wales to beat them. They’ll see a game in Florence as an opportunity to get a good home win – they beat South Africa in the same stadium a few years ago.”

They did, in 2016, but a lot has changed since then. Scotland cannot afford to be over-confident, but given their recent progress they can surely have realistic hopes of getting the new competition off to a winning start.

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