Six Nations preview: Scotland to just avoid Wooden Spoon after another disappointing campaign
Next in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s fourth place finishers, Gregor Townsend’s Scotland.
It has been a rather disruptive build-up to the annual international tournament for the Scots. Coach AB Zondagh announced his departure from the backroom team just a month before the start of the competition, there’s been rumours over Townsend’s future, and they have lost star wing Darcy Graham to injury.
Forwards Scott Cummings and Rory Darge are also on the sidelines, while there are fitness doubts over the likes of Zander Fagerson and Hamish Watson, who played his first game since the November campaign on Saturday.
With the head coach under pressure to produce results and performances after a mixed few years in the job, expectations are certainly not as high as they have been in recent seasons.
Part of that is also down to the perpetual disappointment which has followed Scottish optimism heading into a Six Nations Championship. The talent is there, but the consistency is not, and we feel another campaign of frustration is coming for the players, coaches and supporters.
It started off well enough as they emerged triumphant 20-17 over England to retain the Calcutta Cup, but it proved to be yet another false dawn. As the Red Rose would go on to show, they were no great shakes themselves and, in hindsight, that Scotland display was pretty mediocre.
A week later, Townsend’s men produced a lacklustre effort against Wales in Cardiff. It would end in the same scoreline as the week before, but this time the Scots were on the wrong end of it with Dan Biggar’s late penalty clinching victory for the Welsh.
The fallow week gave Scotland time to reset but, if anything, they only declined as France visited and eased to a 36-17 win at Murrayfield. They had their chances, especially in the first half, but Les Bleus proved to be far too strong in their march towards the Grand Slam.
A win over Italy briefly lifted spirits, but they would soon make headlines for the wrong reasons when six players were sanctioned, including Finn Russell and then-captain Stuart Hogg, for a breach of team protocol.
Fans were already angry over the team’s efforts in the 2022 tournament, and that only brought about further resentment, which led to another poor display, this time away to Ireland, as Andy Farrell’s charges eased to a 26-5 success.
Townsend’s men certainly don’t have the easiest start as they once again face their Auld Enemy first up, but this time it is at Twickenham. In 2021 on their last visit to London, the Scots famously ended 38 years of hurt at the ‘home of rugby’, but that came at an empty ground, and this may well be a much tougher proposition.
They then take on a Wales side potentially rejuvenated by the return of Warren Gatland, who won four titles and three Grand Slams the last time he was in charge of the country. With France following two weeks later, the pressure could be on Townsend and his players by the time the final two games come around.
Even if they come through those three matches with potentially a couple of victories, it doesn’t get any easier as Ireland come to town. Two victories from those four clashes would represent a reasonable return heading into the final encounter against Italy, but a bad run could leave them battling to avoid the Wooden Spoon.
Two players that immediately spring to mind if Scotland are to perform well are Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, who will be crucial to their chances of success. Russell and Townsend have had a strained relationship over the years, but the fly-half is the one player that can ignite this backline.
The head coach dropped the Racing 92 star ahead of the Autumn Nations Series before bringing him back following an injury to Adam Hastings. He then starred in the dominant triumph over Argentina, and Townsend has been spending the past few days heaping praise on the 30-year-old. If he and Hogg can work well in tandem, then the Scots could have a successful few weeks.
Elsewhere in the backline there is Duhan van der Merwe, a player that needs to take on added responsibility with Graham currently on the sidelines. Van der Merwe is an absolute powerhouse but tends not to come searching for the ball so the Scots will need to find ways of getting him involved.
Up front, loosehead Pierre Schoeman has become a bit of a cult hero, for both club and country, and needs a big tournament, while it is vital his front-row colleague, tighthead Zander Fagerson, is back fit.
Behind them, Jonny Gray will do much of the hard graft in the second-row, but it is the loose trio which provides much of stardust in the forward eight. Once again, they are relying on one of their most important players, Hamish Watson, being fit and firing in time for the start of the tournament.
He and captain Jamie Ritchie form an excellent and well-balanced partnership at flanker with Matt Fagerson the primary ball carrier at number eight. Fagerson has become a key cog at the base of the scrum and his carrying game will be crucial in getting front foot ball.
Players to watch
Continuing the back-row theme, Edinburgh’s Luke Crosbie is quite simply an imposing human being. Immensely strong, as well as being dynamic and athletic, the openside has enjoyed a tremendous couple of seasons for the capital-based side. Good at the breakdown and outstanding in the carry, this could be a breakout campaign for the flanker, especially with Darge on the sidelines and Watson struggling to get fully fit.
Further forward, Ewan Ashman impresses every time he takes to the field, whether it be for Sale Sharks or Scotland, and we hope the hooker gets more of an opportunity to show what he can do. The youngster does his core roles well, whether it is throwing or scrummaging, but he also adds plenty around the field. Like Crosbie, he is a powerful carrier and, in a pack which lacks for gainline muscle, the 22-year-old could be a difference-maker.
If the forwards can do their jobs, then it will make it much easier for half-backs and potentially someone like Ben Healy. Russell will, providing there is no further bust-up with Townsend, be the first-choice Scotland fly-half, with Blair Kinghorn next in command, but an injury or suspension will open the door for the Munsterman. Irish by birth but Scottish-qualified through his mother, the 23-year-old is a very talented playmaker and has the quality to step up at this level.
Another ‘foreigner’ taking his place in the squad is Ruaridh McConnochie. He has the name of a Scot but is very much English having been born and raised south of the border, while he also represented the Red Rose at the World Cup. Under World Rugby’s new laws, McConnochie has been able to switch and could well make his second international debut during the Six Nations. The 31-year-old has struggled with injuries but, when fit is an excellent player and will be a threat to defences if given an opportunity by Townsend.
We can’t see them overturning France or Ireland, so three victories is probably the most they can hope for. Even then, going to a pumped-up Twickenham, where fans will be buoyed with the new head coach coming in, will be a big ask first up. The Wales match is probably 50/50 but, if they succumb to Gatland’s men, they could be facing with no wins under their belt. Scotland should do enough to avoid the Wooden Spoon, but it will be another disappointing tournament for Townsend’s men. Fifth place.
Saturday, February 4 v England (Twickenham)
Saturday, February 11 v Wales (Murrayfield)
Sunday, February 26 v France (Stade de France)
Sunday, March 11 v Ireland (Murrayfield)
Saturday, March 18 v Italy (Murrayfield)
READ MORE: Six Nations: Who will be the goal-kicker for each team this year, and their statistics
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