Columnist Stephen Brunsdon reflects on Scotland’s Autumn Tests – and ahead to the 6 Nations:
Had they only held up the long-stretching forearm of Australian centre Tevita Kuridrani late in the game on the opening weekend of their Autumn Test series, Scotland may have been celebrating a clean sweep in the end of year matches.
But Vern Cotter’s men need not look back on the what-ifs. A heart-stopping last minute win against a much-fancied Argentina and a commanding victory over the emerging Georgia in consecutive leave Scotland with a feel-good factor ahead of the 6 Nations.
Yes, the historic championship is a mere three months away already and a morale-boosting performance this November – after a successful summer tour to Japan – has laid the foundations for incoming Head Coach Gregor Townsend in June.
The architect for this is Cotter himself; the Kiwi has instilled a brand of rugby that Scotland desperately lacked in the eras of Williams, Hadden, Robinson and Johnson. And if the past three Tests have shown us anything, it’s that the Scots can adapt to whatever faces them.
While the backs showed their class in many guises – the sheer excitement of Stuart Hogg whenever the full-back touches the ball, the explosive impact of Huw Jones and the calm poise from skipper Greig Laidlaw – the forwards arguably stood out as equally impressive over the course of the series.
The inexperienced Zander Fagerson and Allan Dell demonstrated they were more than capable of adapting to top class international rugby by proving more than a match against a much more physical front-rows of the Wallabies, Argentina and Georgia.
Another player who made a striking impression was Edinburgh flanker Hamish Watson. The back-rower scored his first international try in the Georgia game, but highlighted his skills around the breakdown well in the 19-16 victory over the Pumas the previous week.
Though his two tries against Georgia undoubtedly helped, Stuart Hogg would have been in the running for Scotland Player of the Series regardless. He was a potent threat as ever in attack, and got the Scots on the front foot when under pressure in the second half against Argentina.
His mazy runs and inch-perfect straightening of the line at crucial points across the three tests was yet more evidence that Hogg is a leading contender for a spot on the Lions tour plane to New Zealand next June.
If Hogg was the stand-out player, Finn Russell’s appearance in any context is not to be overlooked either. His serious head injury sustained at the close of last season’s Guinness PRO12 competition was known to be bad, but just how restricting an effect it had on the Warriors out-half – missing the entire pre-season and early matches – came as a concern.
Russell has responded in the best possible way: heads up rugby and playing the sharp, intelligent game we know he can play. A wildcard for the Lions tour considering the competition ahead of him, but a strong 6 Nations will make sure the comeback is complete.
Scotland have often possessed optimism ahead of big tournaments, yet have never seemed to deliver when it mattered.
The performances of Ireland and England this year may indicate that the Scots still have some way to go before they can dream of winning a first title since 1999, but the foundations laid during the Cotter era will be key to paving the way to glory.
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