Two games into this year’s Six Nations and things are already heating up. Scotland has won their first two games; one at Twickenham, the other a comprehensive drubbing of Warren Gatland’s Wales. A matter of years ago, both achievements would be hard to imagine; as it is, Scotland has now claimed four of the last six Calcutta Cups and emotionally added the Doddie Weir Cup to their collection of silverware. Things look healthier for the SRU than they did before the tournament. But there is a mountain to climb before we call this team a contender.
Ireland looks imperious. Even at Murrayfield, it is hard to see Scotland besting their recent bêtes-noires without a considerable upgrade on the Wales game. And before Johnny Sexton and Co. visit in March, Gregor Townsend’s men go to Paris at the weekend with a considerable challenge on their hands. They’ve won there in recent years – and Scotland’s record against France is 50/50 under Toonie’s stewardship – but the French will be looking to bounce back from their game against the Irish. So what chance do the Thistles have?
Townsend seems to have finally drilled his back into a clinical attacking force. Against both England and Wales, Scotland averaged 4 points per visit to the opponent 22 – a striking statistic. Duhan van der Merwe has been excellent down the left wing – and all over the park. Kyle Steyn – who has come through the Scotland Sevens team – has been firm under the high ball and bagged two tries against Wales. Newly-installed scrum-half Ben White has been snappy from the base and bagged a canny try against England, while centres Sione Tuipulotu – with a granny from Greenock – and Leith-born Huw Jones (together ‘Huwipulotu’ to Glasgow and Scotland fans alike) have continued to impress.
The media tends to single out players, though, and it’s Big Duhan who has gained the plaudits. A microcosm of his quality was demonstrated in his astonishing length-of-the-field try against England, when the wing stepped Jack van Poortvliet and swapped the ball between hands to fend off Alex Dombrandt at the same time. While other nations’ fans like to scrutinise Scotland’s diaspora, Van der Merwe has certainly earned his stripes; even before his first cap, he’d already spent two seasons at Myreside freezing on the wing for Richard Cockerill’s boring-as-beans Edinburgh team. To do that, you’d have to be committed.
But it was the pack who won the game against Wales. George Turner performed well, despite a yellow card – he has burst clear of the competition at hooker after being a perennial backup for years – and in the second row, Richie Gray has continued a late-career renaissance. His experience will be sorely needed when Scotland crosses La Manche. So too, will Jamie Ritchie’s captaincy; some accused Stuart Hogg of lacking grit when he held the leadership baton, and his successor already appears to have instilled some bloody-mindedness in his teammates.
It was all too much for Wales. Their experienced Wales fly-half Dan Biggar was bullish before the game, accusing Scotland of receiving “a fair bit of praise without really backing it up”. But for all his medals in the cupboard, it was Biggar who capitulated at Murrayfield. He turned up, misfired, and on one occasion bellowed young winger Rio Dyer after the latter failed to collect Biggar’s knee-high pass, the try line begging. The ten was hooked on 55 minutes. In contrast, Finn Russell was composed at fly-half, save for one kick out on the full, and his smart kicking, tough tackling, offloading and penchant for flighted passes were entirely on display.
Russell will need to be firing on all cylinders if Scotland is to best France. His kicking from the tee should still improve. The back row is another area where Scotland can afford to tighten up; Ritchie has been effective but must watch his rising penalty count. Luke Crosbie has thrown himself amongst it, but Hamish Watson waits in the wings (and Rory Darge is still to return from injury). Matt Fagerson has been exemplary, however, and Jack Dempsey offers to carry punch on the bench, so there is a foundation to build on.
France will battle back, though; at home, they will be favourites. They have been weakened by injuries – no Cameron Woki, Gabin Villiere, Jonathan Danty, or Arthur Vincent, nor the suspended Uini Atonio – but they still boast front-row prowess, a battalion of back-rowers (watch out for Sekou Macalou, who has come off the bench twice now and made a huge impact), a classy stand-off in Romain Ntamack (plus Matthieu Jalibert in reserve), and the dangerous Damian Penaud out wide. And, of course, there is the man at 9. Antoine Dupont is the best rugby player on the planet – does anyone disagree these days?
Some challenge, then. Ritchie has spoken of the need to improve by magnitudes; if the performance against England was a 7, and Wales an 8, then the France game must be a 9. We’ll see if Townsend’s charges can continue to upend expectations. For a long time, this may be the best chance they get to take a shot at the prize.
Image Credit: “First Minister meets Scottish Rugby team” by Scottish Government images is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.