Why USA is a big game for Scotland and the lessons we learned from 2018 defeat

Time for the senior pros to step up in Washington

The match against Canada went as well as it could have given the inexperience of the team, the new combinations, and the fact It was the first game of the tour.

Scotland’s discipline could have been a little better in the first 20-25 minutes. They gave Canada momentum at the start by getting on the wrong side of the referee but in reality, there was little threat to the Scots and it would have been an invaluable lesson for those players experiencing international rugby for the first time. You get less time and leeway at Test level. But overall, everyone will be happy. There were 10 new caps and a couple of the players did well and the others were pretty solid.

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I suspect the USA game on Friday will be a tougher test, especially given the weather conditions in Washington. It’s really hot out there, around 35 degrees. In terms of the challenge on the pitch, American rugby is not exactly flying high at the moment. They lost at home to Romania last week and, like Canada, failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup. So they’re not coming into the Scotland game with a huge amount of pedigree.

Adam Hasting in action for Scotland against USA in Houston in 2018, a match the Americans won 30-29. Hastings starts at 10 against the US on Friday.  (SNS Group/SRU Gary Hutchison)Adam Hasting in action for Scotland against USA in Houston in 2018, a match the Americans won 30-29. Hastings starts at 10 against the US on Friday.  (SNS Group/SRU Gary Hutchison)
Adam Hasting in action for Scotland against USA in Houston in 2018, a match the Americans won 30-29. Hastings starts at 10 against the US on Friday. (SNS Group/SRU Gary Hutchison)

It’s a completely different Scotland team for the USA game and it’s a side packed with seasoned internationals. There are ten Glasgow players in the starting 15 and I think that’s justified. If you take away reputations and select on form, there are not many Edinburgh players who would get in Scotland’s starting side off the back of last season. You would struggle to make a case for many of them based on performances in the league and it’s a real strength for Scotland to be able to select on form and not on reputations.

There’s an argument to be made that the best Scotland team picked on current form should be made up entirely of Glasgow and exile players. So in that context, it’s no surprise that you have ten Glasgow players starting on Friday.

There are a couple of interesting selections, including Murphy Walker who has not had a lot of game time with Glasgow this season. Scotland need to develop depth on both sides of the scrum but particularly at tighthead.

Murphy’s a good player and we will now get the chance to see how he fares at international level. He’s had a tough time with injuries but he’s also had to compete with a couple of Argentinian props at Glasgow, and with Oli Kebble switching from loosehead to tighthead, and Murphy has not quite managed to establish himself as the clear No 2 to Zander Fagerson.

Now he finds himself starting for Scotland, so this is a big game and a big tour for Murphy. He’s been a professional for a while now and he’s just been given a new long-term deal at Glasgow and at some point they're going to need to see a return on their investment. Murphy needs a run of games where people can sit up and realise that this is a player who can provide serious competition at tighthead.

I’m really pleased to see Adam Hastings back. I love Adam as a person and a player and I think he’s such a good 10. Some of his skills are similar to Finn Russell’s, particularly his kicking and passing game, but Adam’s biggest threat is his running game where he has the ability to take the ball to the line, pump and create space either for himself to slip off tackles or turn defenders and put teammates in behind. He’s an intelligent player and he’s also had a rough time of it with injury. Hopefully he can get some game-time on this tour and carry it into the new season with Glasgow.

It will be really important for him personally, and for Glasgow and Scotland, to get him fit and playing his best. You want Adam and Tom Jordan competing for the 10 jersey at Glasgow, and for Scotland too because Tom will be eligible soon. It would mean the pair of them and Ben Healy pushing Finn which will bring the best out of him.

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This is an experimental tour but the squad has a hugely experienced spine. I was part of the tour to North America in 2018 and that squad was also experimental but there were a few of us with a bit of experience, like Hoggy, Dave Denton, Stuart McInally, Pete Horne, and myself, but not as many as on this tour.

In our opener against Canada in 2018 we fielded a team which was half and half, experimental and experienced, and we won well. We did the same for the next match, against USA in Houston, and we lost 30-29 and I think Gregor has had that in mind when picking his team to play the States this time.

In 2018, Matt Fagerson and George Horne made their debuts against the US and Adam was winning his second cap. It was also George Turner’s first start, so there was a lot of inexperience in the spine. I think this is a weaker American team than the one we faced six years ago but Scotland are not messing about with that selection. This is as close to full strength as possible with the personnel available.

In 2018, there was a lot of criticism after the defeat in Houston but we were shielded from it because there was next to no rugby coverage in America and our next game was in Resistencia in Argentina where you couldn’t get any internet or phone signal.

So everything was internal and we were obviously very disappointed. Our focus on the back of that game became how we could re-group and become closer as a group and we put in a performance the following week in Argentina which was undoubtedly a significant step up in quality from the previous two weeks.

I had been on the bench against America as replacement hooker. I’d cracked my ribs the week before against Canada and I wasn’t expected to play but with Stuart McInally still out injured I went onto the bench at 16. I came on with 20 minutes to go in the back row. It was about 40 degrees and I remember coming on and George Turner turning round to me, taking his scrum cap off, and saying “Thank God!”, and he started walking towards the touchline. I had to say to him, “Sorry George, I’m in the back row”, and he had to play the full 80 in the scorching heat! I’m not sure he’s let it go yet.

As I say, I don’t think the American team Scotland will play this week will be as strong as the side from 2018 but it will be a really interesting game. Last week it was all about the young guys, and I thought they played really, really well, albeit against modest opposition. I was surprised by how poor Canada were. Every time Scotland played that simple ball out the back from the forwards there was acres of space and they exploited it.

On Friday you’ve got guys in the team who will be looking to be part of a Lions tour in 11 months’ time. A scrappy 20-point win won’t be enough. The young boys showed the way last weekend, now the senior pros need to step up and try to blow the USA away.

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That’s why it’s a big game for the likes of Huw Jones and Duhan van der Merwe. Huw’s season was disrupted by injury and Duhan’s had a disappointing campaign with Edinburgh. It’s up to those established senior players to come in and show that they have the mentality to be top-level international class players.

A full-strength All Blacks or South Africa or even England team would go out and put 50, 60, 70 points on a team like America. That’s the level Scotland needs to be aiming for if they want to be sitting at the top table of international rugby. If you want to be the best, you have to perform every single time.

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