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Scotland men’s rugby review of 2021 – David Barnes

A CALENDAR year which featured a first victory for Scotland at Twickenham in 38-years, a first victory in Paris in 22-years, a gritty home victory over Australia, and an overall win percentage of just under 67 percent, undoubtedly counts as an overall success. 

That triumph at Twickenham was a special occasion because it was achieved playing disciplined and controlled rugby. While Scotland’s big victories of the recent past have tended to be roller-coaster affairs, characterised by the passion of the collective and the flair of certain individuals, this was a solid 80-minute performance in which every player demonstrated mature resilience and an unwavering belief the general game-plan. 

England did not play well on the day, but much of that was down to how Scotland dictated the pattern of the game. The hosts simply could not get a foothold. Scotland never looked like losing. 

France was different. Played a month later than initially scheduled due to a Covid outbreak in the home camp – a consequence of shoddy adherence to the protocols – the game fell outside World Rugby’s designated international window, and Scotland were disadvantaged by the English clubs playing hardball. Eventually a deal was struck which meant that five players from south of the Border were released, and Sean Maitland of Saracens was the most obvious absentee. 

Despite this, Gregor Townsend’s boys produced another grown-up performance, but as the game entered overtime they trailed 23-20 to a Les Bleus side who needed to win by 20 points to finish top of the Six Nations table. With the Scots needing to win by eight points to finish second – their highest ever ranking – it was clear by now that neither side was going to get what they had hoped for from this match. 

For the visitors, however, any sort of win would mean an awful lot after so many years of disappointment at this venue, and they dug deep to produce a breathtaking 22-phase passage of play which eventually – in the fifth minute of injury-time – culminated in Adam Hastings firing a miss-pass out to Duhan van der Merwe on the left wing, who stepped inside and then crashed over to snatch a famous win, which was all the more remarkable because it was achieved after Finn Russell had been harshly sent-off on 70 minutes after his forearm made contact with Brice Dulin’s throat. 

A special mention for Ryan Wilson is required here, for answering an SOS call after Matt Fagerson injured his ankle in the final training session before the squad flew out to Paris, called his wife to ask her rush his passport from Glasgow to Edinburgh Airport, and then came off the bench for his 50th cap – 17 months after his last cap – to play a central role in that late push for glory.  

Scotland’s form in the Six Nations earned eight players selection onto the Lions tour to South Africa, an unprecedented total in the professional era, with seven of that number going on to play a role in the Test series. It wasn’t an expedition which will be celebrated in years to come as one of the greats, but the exposure to that environment can only help Scotland in their quest to become competitive at the top level on a more consistent basis. 

After the heady highs of those great Six Nations triumphs, Scotland’s workmanlike win in November over an Australian side surviving on fumes from an empty tank after a tough six months, is not quite so easy to get hyperbolic about, but it reinforced the general sense that things are headed the right way. The team also picked up home wins against Italy, Tonga and Japan this year. 

A big theme during the last 12 to 18 months for Townsend has been to grow the depth of his squad. In 2022, he used 53 different players and awarded 15 new caps. That includes up-and-coming youngsters Cameron Redpath (a star of that win at Twickenham on his debut but injured ever since), Rufus McLean, Ross Thompson, Jamie Dobie and Ewan Ashman, who have the potential to be key players in the side for a decade to come. 

Townsend now has at least two, and in many cases three, credible selection options in each position – which has rarely, if ever,  been the case in the past – and appears to have a strong sense of what his best starting XV is. A satisfying place to be as the build-up to the 2023 World Cup begins to gather pace. 

However, classic hard-luck stories at home against Wales and Ireland during the Six Nations, and a straight-forward pummelling by South Africa in November, provided timely reminders that this team is still a long way from the finished article. 

Scotland’s three wins from four during November is not to be sniffed at, but the record of their northern hemisphere rivals during that window – England, France and Ireland were unbeaten, while Wales ran South Africa close – indicates that the progress of Townsend’s team will need to gather pace in the Six Nations when it kicks off in just over five weeks’ time. 

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