Scott Hastings feels Scotland remain a work in progress under coach Gregor Townsend and while they are definitely on an upward curve, the elite Six Nations teams will have done their research on the resurgent Dark Blues ahead of 2019.
Scottish rugby, at least at the international level, had been dwelling in the doldrums in recent years – they were handed the Six Nations wooden spoon as recently as 2015.
Bar perennial strugglers Italy, the Scots have finished bottom of the championship in its revamped format more times – four – than any other nation since the Six Nations was established 20 years ago in 2000.
However, former fly-half Townsend took over in May 2017 and in last year’s Six Nations – buoyed by a stunning 53-24 destruction of Australia in the 2017 end of year autumn internationals – Scotland rose to finish third behind champions Ireland and Wales in second place.
It was the highest Scotland had finished since 2013, while 1999 was the last time they won the tournament (the final year of the Five Nations).
They began brightly with a thundering 33-20 triumph at Murrayfield over Italy on opening weekend last week, but welcome wounded Ireland on Saturday.
And after building steadily in the last two years, 64-times capped centre Hastings is glad to see that Townsend has finally married attacking players and rugby together.
“It was an alright autumn,” Hastings said bluntly having seen Scotland lose 21-10 to Wales and narrowly 26-20 to South Africa as well as beating Fiji and Argentina at the end of last year.
“Scotland are a work in progress under Gregor but what I think everyone understands is they play a very attacking brand of rugby, they have some brilliant ball attacking players in Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Finn Russell and then the experience with Greig Laidlaw.
“In the pack there’s competition there with Stuart McInally, WP Nell, in the second row Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis who are building up an understanding. Jamie Ritchie’s come into the back row – that’s been one of Gregor’s traits as coach, bringing in the youngsters.
“He’s found Sam Skinner at Exeter Chiefs and they’ve brought some real dynamism to the team.”
Hastings though, who along with elder brother Gavin, also featured for the British & Irish Lions, making one appearance on both the 1989 and 1993 tours to Australia and New Zealand respectively, feels the elite teams will still trouble them.
“However, against a well organised defence or physical set of players like South Africa or Wales, they challenge Scotland in ruck ball and contact,” added Hastings, 54, speaking to Sport360 during December’s Dubai Rugby Sevens in his ambassadorial role with Capgemini.
“If Scotland don’t get quick ball they’re quickly found out so going into the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup they’re behind the other sides in terms of being competitive and grinding out results.
“They’re close but not quite there yet. I think you’ll see them try and cope with that physically over the top of the ball but also attacking the ball with this high tempo game. One thing you fear in sport is speed and they will worry defences with their high tempo game.
“A lot more teams will know about them this year though, absolutely. They’ll be analysed from last year and the autumn and the teams that work them out defensively can really suffocate them.
“Wales with Justin Tipuric and Alun-Wyn Jones, the dominance of those players in that pack; England have found their mojo again and Joe Schmidt, with his knarly set of Irish forwards and huge experience at half-back who drive this green machine to more and more success.
“I think these teams will go up a notch in 2019 as we head to the World Cup.”
Looking ahead to the World Cup later this year, and it would appear the Scots are well positioned to make further strides towards the top teams, and build on their controversial exit four years ago in England when they were downed 35-34 by the Wallabies in the quarter-finals thanks to some contentious refereeing.
In Japan, Scotland face a kind pool, with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in their midst. But in a group also containing the Brave Blossoms, Russia and Samoa, Townsend’s troops will be favourites to finish second and are facing a likely quarter-final with world champions New Zealand if that scenario unfolds.
But with England, Ireland and Wales all being touted for Six Nations success and with the All Blacks not at their imperious best, while the Springboks are rebuilding and Australia in a mess, Hastings is looking forward to one of the most open World Cups in years.
BREAKING | Scotland make four changes for this Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Ireland @BTMurrayfield.— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) 7 February 2019
🔄 Berghan and Strauss replace injured Nel and Skinner, Gray & Maitland return from injury for Toolis and Kinghorn who move to the bench.
➡️ https://t.co/y0gRovACwY pic.twitter.com/wob5Ffn4JO
“I think Scotland are in with a chance, absolutely,” said former outside centre Hastings, who played for his country between 1986 and 1997.
“The thing is with the World Cup and Scotland, you lose that first game and you’re suddenly under pressure to win all your remaining games, and come up against the hosts in last pool match.
“If they cause an upset by beating Ireland they still have that tricky game v Japan. Once you get to the knockouts in a World Cup though, anything can happen.
“The Australia game four years ago, they contrived to lose, with poor decisions to close out the game. They were moments from being in a semi-final. Australia are on the ropes now and I think it’s exciting and the World Cup will be very exciting.
“It’s great for the game that it will be one of the most competitive tournaments in years.”
Wales head coach Warren Gatland says his players are “continually playing for World Cup squad places.”
Gatland has made 10 changes and one positional switch for Saturday’s Six Nations clash against Italy in Rome.
Full-back Liam Williams, wing Josh Adams, centre Jonathan Davies – who captains Wales for the first time – lock Adam Beard and back-row forward Josh Navidi are the only starting XV survivors from last week’s 24-19 victory over France.
Navidi switches from flanker to number eight, while regular skipper Alun-Wyn Jones is among the replacements in a team that sees Leicester wing Jonah Holmes and Wasps flanker Thomas Young making their Six Nations debuts.
“We spoke about wanting to give everyone an opportunity,” Gatland said at Wales’ Nice training base, ahead of the departure for Rome.
“We are replicating what might happen later in the year (World Cup) with having the 31-man squad.
“There are a couple of things that may potentially happen in the World Cup with Cory Hill getting a cut on the knee last week – he had stitches – and Justin Tipuric getting a back strain. George North has a shoulder problem from last week, so hasn’t had a big role in training.
“It’s just about how we manage that. We wanted to include the eight players that weren’t involved last weekend.
“The players are continually playing for World Cup squad places. The Six Nations is a really important competition for us, but having that opportunity with the first two games away, we’ve been able to have a mini camp.
“It was a great chance for us to utilise the draw of the first two games being away from home and then try and replicate some of the issues we will face later in the year. It has been good from that point of view.”
Scrum-half Aled Davies and flanker Aaron Wainwright are handed first Six Nations starts, while centre Owen Watkin, fly-half Dan Biggar, who replaces Gareth Anscombe, hooker Elliot Dee and lock Jake Ball also feature.
Young is the son of Wasps rugby director and former Wales prop Dai Young, and he has been among the Premiership’s most consistent performers this season.
Victory for Wales at the Stadio Olimpico would make it 11 successive wins and equal their all-time unbeaten record set between 1907 and 1910.
They have also not lost to Italy for 12 years, while the Azzurri are without a Six Nations win against any team since 2015.
Gatland added: “I think they (Italy) will play a lot more rugby this week. They looked dangerous in the last 20 minutes against Scotland (last Saturday) even though there was a yellow card.
“It just shows that they can be dangerous with ball in hand, and I think they will play.
“We’ve got to stay in the arm-wrestle against these guys, create chances and then try and make the most of them.”
Gatland also paid tribute to Scarlets star Davies after awarding him leadership duties.
“Looking at that group of players, the team, he seemed the obvious choice to be given the opportunity, and he deserves the accolade,” Gatland said.
“Not that he needs to prove himself as a leader, but it’s good for him and it is recognition of what he has already achieved in the game.”
Well, if you weren’t excited about the Six Nations going into the opening weekend you will be now.
It was a fantastic round of fixtures that’s really set up the tournament nicely.
Without looking too far ahead Wales v England in a couple of weeks is going to be enormous, and that’s why there has been some surprise at Warren Gatland making a lot of changes this weekend for the Italy game.
For the players, the first game is always hard. You have to get up to the speed of international rugby and there’s so much going on off the pitch too. There’s lot of attention on the players, lots of media interest and that can be difficult for some.
You tend to use up a lot of nervous energy in that week leading up to the first game – it’s pretty draining.
Once you get that first game under your belt, and especially if you win, then it’s massive and it puts you in a great position for the rest of the tournament. Get a second
win under your belt and you are flying, confidence is high and you feel on top of the world.
Wales should now beat Italy, and if, as a player, you’ve played both those games then you go into the England game absolutely buzzing.
There’s obviously an argument for keeping a consistent side, but this is a real opportunity to give some fringe players a taste of competitive rugby, and that’s something Gatland will be keen to do with the World Cup around the corner – you never know when you need them.
He did it while I was playing a few years ago. He made wholesale changes and we ended up struggling for large parts and just about managed to get over the line – but it was a good learning experience for the players involved.
Wales made a typically slow start against France, but came away with a win which is the main thing, but England played incredibly well against Ireland, you have to give them credit for that.
France will look to bounce back, and they will be physical at Twickenham this weekend, but England shouldn’t have too many problems.
That will send them to Cardiff in the third round of fixtures with huge momentum. On the back of two competitive games, I see them being really game-ready, whereas Wales have had a pretty slow game against France, and lots of changes against Italy. They’re two different approaches, but can work for both sides.
France will be so disappointed in the manner of the defeat against Wales. Yoann Huget is a great player, but made a mistake, and then late on in the game they are throwing big, lopping passes in pretty poor conditions. I just don’t know what they are thinking.
The score in Dublin may have surprised some, but England’s performance deserves a huge amount of credit.
Their tempo was amazing, and they have quality through the side. The 10, 12, 13 looks very dangerous, with gas on the wings – it looks very, very good.
Henry Slade was a real standout. He’s a classy player and gave an all-round exceptional performance against Ireland. His skillset is amazing, he may not have really established himself as an international player prior to this, World class: Henry Slade was absolutely magnificent for England in Dublin. but he can kick
on now and be a big, big star heading towards the World Cup.
The way they play, England will take some stopping as the tournament goes on.
I thought Ireland lacked a bit of creativity against England. They weren’t able to control the pace or tempo of the game, and then when things were going against them, were unable to react with something different.
They now face a tough task at Murrayfield, where Scotland will always be tough to beat.
It’s difficult to tell exactly where Scotland are because Italy were so poor last week – it really was schoolboy stuff at times.
The score may have looked closer than it should have, but Italy were very disappointing.
It’s all very well for Scotland to run in tries like they did in the first hour, but now they have to push on against Ireland in a game that will be a very different proposition.
It’s going to be an interesting weekend.
Wales to beat Italy by 37 points
England to beat France by 18 points
Ireland to be Scotland by 12 points
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