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  • Will Gupwell

Can Scotland Make it Out of the Pool of Death?

Rewind the clock to 2019. Scotland, a proud rugby nation, were unceremoniously dumped out of the Rugby World Cup in the pool stages for only the second time in their history after unexpectedly losing to the hosts Japan. It was a tempestuous time. Typhoon Hagibis had threatened to cancel the game and Scotland’s CEO had threatened legal action if the match was called off. He probably wishes it had been… Despite the result head coach Gregor Townsend kept his job and looked to rebuild for the next cycle.

Four years on and Scotland enter the competition in the dreaded Pool B. The so-called “Pool of Death”. They will not only face Ireland, the current world number one side, but also reigning world champions, South Africa. Scotland will have the additional challenge of a Tongan side bolstered by the new eligibility laws which has allowed players including Charles Piutau, Adam Coleman and Malakai Fekitoa to switch allegiances. Tonga will be looking to take a scalp from someone in the group.

Whilst the odds might be stacked against this plucky Scottish team, they are not the side of four years ago. Nor are they alike any Scotland team we’ve ever seen in the professional era - in fact this may be the best Scotland team ever.

In Gregor Townsend’s 33-man squad announced; 15 players have previously played at a World Cup. There may be a shortage of veterans following the shock retirement of hundred cap man Stuart Hogg just a couple of months ago, nevertheless, with an average cap number of 30 in the squad Townsend has built a young but by no means inexperienced squad during this World Cup cycle.

Scotland’s Strengths?

Whenever you talk about Scotland and the things they do well, there’s always one man on everyone’s lips - Finn Russell. The talismanic flyhalf has had a rocky relationship with his head coach. However, after being named as captain in the first World Cup warm up against France, it’s evidence there is the upmost confidence in him and it’s showing on the pitch.

Once labelled as a ‘maverick’ player for his playing style, he is now the epitome of a world-class test fly half. His attitude on the pitch at times can be seen as blasé however he is merely fearless in his decisions to throw an out the back offload or risky kick. Russell has belief in his own capabilities. This is only further reflected in his stats. Despite making the second most offloads per 80 out of all fly halves across the major leagues last season, something that one could suggest leans towards a risk taker in nature, he also however scored the most points out of any fly half per game showing his value to any side.

Furthermore, key to this Scottish revival lies in its powerful and dynamic centre partnership hiding not so subtly just outside of Russell. The aptly named “Huwipulotu” pairing of Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones is a lethal combination of the power supported by their playmaking abilities. Either of them can slot into a playmaker role when Russell is indisposed, whether it be at the bottom of a ruck or setting up the next play. This allows for a fluidity in attack not afforded by many teams.

This fluidity is also supported by a player to watch out for this tournament in Darcy Graham. Graham had the second most clean breaks per 80 of any back three player last season and his role in Scotland’s attacking system is vital. He is complemented well by the marauding Duhan Van der Merwe who scored one of the tries of the season when he stormed through England’s defence at Twickenham earlier this year.

Scotland aren’t just all about their backs. They also possess a formidable backrow with plenty of combinations. Captain Jamie Ritchie shone as a young backrower at the last World Cup, this time he leads the side to France and is joined by a workhorse unit including Hamish Watson, Rory Darge and Matt Fagerson.

Scotland’s Vulnerabilities?

When looking at Scotland’s weaknesses it’s hard to look past their lack of depth in the front row. British and Irish Lion Zander Fagerson faced a two match ban after his red card in the first warm up game against France meaning he’ll be available for the opening game against South Africa with a lack of match fitness. Without their star tighthead, the South African born WP Nel has been stepping up in the warm ups. Unfortunately, the 37-year old isn’t quite the player he once was.

Coming up against a South African side hoping to be back-to-back world champions, as the final in 2019 in Yokahama proved, if you don’t have a solid scrum platform South Africa will bully you. The same goes for Ireland who have one of the best front rows in the world.

Another issue Scotland will need to address if they wish to exit their group is they need to get out of the blocks fast. In both warm-up games against France they conceded early tries. The same occurred against France in the Six Nations. Although both times in the warm-up games they managed to turn their performances around in the second-half; conceding early can be a key issue especially against the likes of Ireland who tend to fire shots early doors.

So the question remains can Scotland make it out of their Pool? There’s no doubt that it will be a tough ask with the quality of opponents, however despite that, Gregor Townend’s squad is poised to be better than any other Scottish side in the professional era. Their success now lies in their own hands.


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