Analysis: Scotland’s flower is still in bloom

All in all, it was a mixed autumn for Gregor Townsend and Scotland.

All in all, it was a mixed autumn for Gregor Townsend and Scotland.

They lost to the two teams ranked above them but beat the two teams they outranked.

Much like this year’s Six Nations – things got off to a rocky start in defeat in Cardiff against Wales but soon improved.

They put 50 points on a Fiji team that would go on to beat France this autumn and unveiled some new names – particularly in the back row – that will boost Townsend’s depth for next year.

However, they slipped to a narrow loss to South Africa in a game they could have won and then rounded off the autumn with a win over Argentina in a game they could have easily lost.

But optimism continues to reign in Edinburgh – with all three games at BT Murrayfield this autumn a sell-out and both their club sides performing well in the Guinness PRO14.

And after grinding out an ugly win against the Pumas, they will return to their fortress for the start of the 2019 Six Nations with back-to-back home games against Italy and Ireland.

As has often been pointed out, their away form needs work but the upward curve under Townsend has not flattened out just yet.

Stand-out players

The real boost of the autumn came in the return to form and fitness of Stuart Hogg.

Less than two months after ankle surgery, the British & Irish Lion entered the autumn without a club game under his belt for Glasgow since the start of September.

But he slotted straight back into proceedings at full-back and led by example for a back line that scored some wonderful tries.

Hogg at the age of only 26 already has 65 caps for his country while Jonny Gray at only 24 has 47 caps and counting – the future of Scotland still looks very bright indeed.

And Hogg capped things off with the decisive assist for Sean Maitland in their win over the Pumas last Saturday – Townsend will be delighted to have his talisman back firing on all cylinders.

Indeed the back three remains a serious Scottish strength – Tommy Seymour ended his 18-month try drought with a hat-trick against Fiji while Maitland now has four tries in his last five games at BT Murrayfield.

Finn Russell also returned after a summer off to settle into life in France and renewed his half-back pairing with Greig Laidlaw to impressive effect.

However, his switch to inside centre alongside Adam Hastings against the Pumas was an experiment that will need more time to bed in on this evidence.

Huw Jones – despite some defensive frailty in Cardiff – remains inked in at No.13 and his attacking work makes him one of the chief threats in the northern hemisphere at outside centre.

Up front, Scotland’s front row strength in depth is growing by the game – Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown are now both top-class hookers while in Allan Dell, WP Nel and Simon Berghan they have a propping crew that, if they stay fit, are more than a match for most sides.

Breakthrough stars

Injuries meant Scotland’s pack was missing some key lieutenants in the form of captain John Barclay and second row Richie Gray.

But both are in line to return for the Six Nations next year, all things being well, and they will join a Scotland forward unit that introduced some new faces this year who caught the eye.

Much of the focus was on Blade Thomson coming into the autumn, but injury ruled him out and in his place Jamie Ritchie and Sam Skinner both flourished.

Ritchie’s fine work for the last year at Edinburgh was finally recognised and he offers a fine option across both the open and blindside flank.

While Skinner’s versatility across the second row and at No.6 means Scotland’s pack carried some much-needed punch.

Add both of them to Hamish Watson’s consistent excellence and the back-row bank – with Barclay on the comeback – looks full to the brim again.

What they said

Head coach Gregor Townsend: “To do well in the Six Nations, you need momentum, you need wins early.

“We have an opportunity, playing at home rather than away. But we know Italy are going to be really strong.

“For 60 minutes against us in Rome, they were the much better team. And I’m sure they’ll lean on what they did that day, which was make really powerful carries. Both of their pro sides are playing much better, and both are tough to beat. And Italy will be tough to beat.

“Momentum is an interesting thing. You get it through tournaments.

“Yes, we’ve won our last [autumn] game, but we don’t see the players for another two months. So we’ve got to build our momentum through the Six Nations, with how we prepare and what team we select for that first game. That will have a huge bearing on how we gain momentum in that tournament.”

Lock Grant Gilchrist: “On the whole, we have done well over this period.

“Obviously we would have loved to win in those narrow defeats [against Wales and South Africa]. We feel like we let ourselves down a little bit and we could have won those.

“But there are some good learnings to take from that. If we add that to the good stuff we have done and improve, then we will back ourselves against anybody.”